23 November 2010

Conference Report: ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar - 3

It's really hard to blog the third ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size seminar because I was one of the main organisers and I have little critical distance. I still think it's worth saying a few things about it, despite being deeply embroiled in its production, or maybe especially because of my closeness to the event.

One of the things that I have enjoyed very much about this seminar series is that it has been a friendly and welcoming interdisciplinary space for discussion. I've felt that the meetings have been instrumental in developing a strong Fat Studies community in the UK. I hoped that this seminar would continue in this way, and I knew it would be special because it was a space that was intentionally open to activists as well as scholars, not that the two are mutually exclusive. As well as the seminar being free to attend, we offered bursaries for people on low incomes so that they could travel to the gathering. We moved outside university space and held the seminar at Stratford Library, a deliberate move to create access for people who would not normally go to an event like this, and dialogue between different groups.

I've included a list of all the speakers below. I don't want to go into detail about each presentation, all of them were really interesting, useful and powerful in their own ways. However I will talk briefly about some of the more outstanding moments of the event, offered here as my personal opinion rather than in any official capacity as co-organiser of the seminar.

I felt very proud to have been able to give a platform to such a variety of speakers, including people who had little previous experience of either presenting at an academic conference, or in Fat Studies. It was great to hear Caroline Walters talk about representations of fat BDSM without having to make any apology or give a defensive Fat 101 context for her work. I was also delighted to see Kay Hyatt present an account of the Big Bum Jumble and explain why it was a significant example of fat activism. This kind of work, also referenced at the seminar by Stacy Bias, is completely unexamined in the academy yet offers such rich material for analysis.

Two presentations stood out for me in terms of the way they incorporated emotion, namely anger. Anger is not central to my own work, but it is an element of it, it's a kind of energy that fuels a desire for disruption and change. I think any kind of emotion is somewhat taboo in academia, as scholars we are often expected to produce cool analytical work that somehow exists beyond the realm of earthly human emotion. In this context I think it was very brave that Dr Kim Singleton and Dr Samantha Murray made reference to their own anger about fat hatred. Sondra Solovay's keynote also referenced a more muted anger at the unjust systems within which she works. Perhaps one of the qualities of interdisciplinary space is that it enables people to take a risk and present challenging work. Either way, it feels very freeing to be able to bring 'unpleasant' emotion to our work, to be real about who we are and what we do, that seems quite rare and valuable within scholarship.

For me the highlight of the seminar was the triple whammy offered by Dr Samantha Murray, Dr Rachel White, and Mike Wyeld on Friday morning. I can't remember ever encountering such a beautifully subversive trio of work on fat. Sam critically addressed what can be a problematic construction of fat activist identity and constituency through subversive methodology. Whoa! The nerve! Rachel subverted widely-held rationales for fat activism by talking about The Chubsters. Be still my beating heart! In 30 minutes she articulated one of the ways in which I think of fat activism in a way that I have never been able to do for myself. I felt so happy and free and proud to see her discuss my work like that, profoundly encouraged. One of the more difficult elements of the seminar was the screening of the Swedish film Thank You From Heaven, about anti-fat bullying, and I felt that Rachel gave us the tools to deconstruct this work and invest in more liberating kinds of activism. Mike helped create much-needed dialogue between Bear culture and Fat Studies and fat activism. He subverted the invisible and pernicious rules that keep these cultures separate. It's no understatement to say that I hunger for sophisticated work like this that takes fat activism seriously.

Another highlight for me was showing everyone the Fat Queer and Trans Timeline that was collectively produced at NOLOSE last summer. The discussion surrounding it, which involved thinking about what the Timeline represented and how it could be developed, was a total thrill. As my friend has just emailed me: "Where else can you see four metres of queer trans fat activism laid out before your eyes? Literally nowhere!"

Finally, I programmed some extras into the seminar that ended up working well. Bill Savage/Dr R White displayed a series of handmade posters from Unskinny Bop; Sarah Tilley, an award-winning bookseller, set up a Fat Studies bookstall; I brought the Chubuzzer for people to play with; there were zines and badges; Kay brought some leftover Big Bum Jumble for people to rummage through. It's a rare conference where you end up with a new outfit.

There's one more ESRC Fat Studies seminar in the pipeline, which will take place next spring in Bath. Given the desperate funding climate in universities at the moment I wonder if gorgeous seminars such as these will get a look-in in the future, or if this is all we'll be able to muster. I'll try and remain hopeful that more rad fat space might still be carved out in time.

Economic Social Research Council seminar series, Fat Studies and HAES: Bigness Beyond Obesity
Seminar 3: Experiencing and Celebrating Fatness
18-19 November 2010

  • Dr Hannele Harjunen, University of Jyväskylä: Travelling concepts: when fat studies came to Finland
  • Caroline Walters, University of Exeter: 'Padded kink': a critique of visual representations of fat BDSM
  • Dr Kim Singleton, University of Liverpool: Gluttons for punishment: the perverse practices of social inclusion
  • Kay Hyatt, Big Bum Jumble, London: DIY Fat Activism and The Big Bum Jumble
  • Keynote: Sondra Solovay, San Francisco Law School, attorney and fat activist: Fat Panic and the Real Epidemic
  • Dr Samantha Murray, Macquarie University: This Fat Girl's Getting Back in the Water: (Re)Thinking dialogue between fat scholarship and activism
  • Dr Rachel White, University of Westminster: No Fat Future? The uses of anti-social queer theory for fat activism
  • Mike Wyeld, Bears Against Bigotry: Bears Against Bigotry Pecha Kucha
  • Film: Thank You From Heaven, introduced by Christina Fleetwood, National Association of Overweight Persons in Sweden
  • Stacy Bias, Fat & Body Image Activist & Campus Speaker, Portland: Event based activism: creating community through art and adventure
  • Discussion and presentation of A Fat Queer and Trans Timeline, facilitated by Charlotte Cooper, University of Limerick.

10 November 2010

Representing fat and class

Just a quick note about representations of fat and class.

I saw this image today, I don't know who it's by, so can't credit it. It's an updated version of a much older Pyramid of Capitalist System illustration produced in 1911 in the Industrial Workers of the World's newspaper.

I was intrigued to see that the bourgeoisie is represented as entirely fat in the modern version, but not so much in the older illustration. There's a slightly portly stuffed shirt, but the rest of the older gang are normatively-sized.

Why do you think this is?

My suspicion is that fat stereotypes of laziness, greed, and corruption have more currency today than they did in the past. My friend Bird la Bird commented that if the more recent image was a truer depiction of class embodiment then it would be the proles who are fat rather than the middle class.

I'm annoyed by this image, to me it represents the failure of many people in the radical left to question pernicious stereotypes. By representing fat in this way they also fail to consider the ways that class (and other attributes) intersects with different kinds of struggle. I kind of feel that it's a self-hating image too, what is so wrong with depicting heroic class warriors as fat? They've tried to show women. Alas, analyses of race or disability or sexuality, to name but a few things, are also missing from this image, as though they never have anything to do with class. It's really limited.

There's another similar illustration worth remarking upon too. It's busier and more complex, but sure enough, one of the capitalists at the top is kind of chunky, the fattest person in the image. It's hard to see the detail clearly in this link but there doesn't seem to be much in the way of diversity represented. I love prole.info but you'd think they could represent some working class disabled people, for example. No fat people in their working class! Maybe they're just dependent on the available clipart and its limitations to make this image. Still, it sucks.

02 November 2010

Jennifer Love Hewitt's fat suit is problematic

One of my friends posted pictures of Jennifer Love Hewitt's unfortunate Halloween costume and it got me thinking about a few things.

That Jennifer Love Hewitt would want to present an ugly stereotype for laughs is emblematic of the way her own body has been presented in the popular media. She's been called a 'lollipop' in the tabloids on account of her skinniness, and has also been harassed for weight gain. No wonder she appears to be obsessed with fat. Her behaviour is disappointing, but then again she's a hack actress whose actions have little bearing on my life, I don't really care what she does, and maybe she just doesn't know any better. It's vile but I'm mostly indifferent.

One of the things about carnivals and holidays is that they represent a time where the usual social rules are relaxed. The appeal of a holiday is the potential for freedom and anarchy. It also means the gloves are off, politeness doesn't count, it's the rule of the Id. I think this is one of the elements that convinces white people to think it perfectly appropriate to wear racist Halloween costumes, for example. But I think it also helps explain the interest in sex and death that is so central to this holiday, and the lampooning of upright society.

Fat is clearly part of this. If fatness represents all that is reprehensible, no wonder attention is drawn to it during a festival of all things gross. Jennifer Love Hewitt's costume reminds me of the ways that fat women's bodies are both invisible and hyper-visible, we're public property, a site of cultural entitlement to know us, unknowable freaks that we are. Show your fat body! Jiggle it around! Make a spectacle of your flesh! That's what it's all about.

This has led me to think of other contexts where the social rules about fat and propriety are skewed in terms of having a public body. I had a conversation recently with another fat woman where we talked about how our nieces and god(less)daughters, and other girl children in our lives, were fascinated by our fatness. I've had experiences where I'm poked, where my shirt is lifted to expose my belly and tits, my belly button is of major interest, and some kids seem to want to grab my arse. The boundaries around this kind of bodily contact are really unsettling and it's a constant fight to maintain them and ensure everybody's safety. I don't always like being touched like this, and it can be hard for a child, especially one who has little contact with fat people, to hear me say "No." Yet I also want the children in my life to grow up without a mystified concept of fat as Other, I want a fat body to be real, knowable and acceptable to them. Plus it's fun to play with the full fat heft of my body, I like to wrestle.

I have no conclusions to make about this at the moment, it's hard to talk about because it involves policing a boundary between that which is fun and safe and that which is dangerous and improper. I'd welcome your thoughts.

21 October 2010

LighterLife: was Lucy Prince a casualty?

Do you really think that replacing your meals with a sachet of powder is the best thing to do for your health? Ever wondered what might happen if, for example, you were drinking powdered milkshakes instead of food, under the mistaken fantasy that this supplies all your nutritional needs, and your potassium levels dropped? This is what happened to Lucy Prince, who has just died.

Was Lucy another LighterLife casualty? None of the news reports online mention the name of the very low calorie diet she was following, only that she had replaced meals with powdered shakes. That sounds like LigherLife to me, though it could also be the Tony Ferguson Weight Loss Programme and Diet Plan, currently getting the heavy sell from Boots, or any number of other very low calorie diets on the market. I wonder why the name of the product that probably contributed to Lucy Prince's death was left out of reports?

Samantha Clowes, Jacqueline Henson and Matilda Callaghan are three women who have died in the last couple of years who were also LighterLife customers. LighterLife refutes claims that there is any connection between their deaths, these women died because they were 'morbidly obese', or had pre-existing health problems. Even though there is evidence to the contrary, fatness is regarded as a an expressway to an early death within current medical thinking, which means that there is little impetus to establish a correlation between very low calorie diets and mortality.

Companies such as LighterLife have a financial interest in developing obesity research which ultimately helps them sell product. They do this with the help of various health professionals and organisations such as the National Obesity Forum and TOAST (remember them?). This means that independent research on the relationship between very low calorie diets and mortality in fat people is even less likely.

This is a terrible situation. How many more women, who just happen to be doing LighterLife or its equivalents, are going to die until these dangerous diets are outlawed? Yeah, I'm angry about this, aren't you?

20 October 2010

Media: how online advertising undermines body activism

I like how this screengrab I took from Jezebel.com today illustrates some of the contradictions and tensions in talking about fat. Yeah, that's my desktop.

An article about a critical grassroots campaign about eating disorders is capped off with a diet advert. The diet ad is framed as a 'health' intervention, but it uses the visual cliché of a tape-measure around food that is being presented here as 'unhealthy' – a burger, classic visual shorthand for out of control eating/root cause of obesity – and thus in need of control. It looks like an official US government intervention, I didn't click on the banner so I don't know. Given the sponsorship of such campaigns by weight loss corporations, it can hardly be considered a neutral public service announcement, even though it masquerades as one.

Now I think the relationship between eating disorders and diet culture is complex and I don't subscribe to the simplistic conclusion that dieting causes eating disorders. But I do think that diet culture is unhelpful in terms of eating disorder recovery, and of people feeling ok about themselves in general, and I see dieting as it is presented here as a form of disordered eating in itself.

On the one hand Jezebel is taking the laudable position of supporting campaigns that help people with eating disorders, which I think is related to fat activism, but on the other it profits from diet culture.

I don't think this is deliberate, I think Jezebel's editors are interested in helping develop critical responses to fat, 'obesity' and also eating disorders and the kind of body stuff that affects women. Sometimes they're right on the money, and sometimes I think their analysis is a bit sketchy, but this is to be expected from a populist site, I think they do pretty well considering. I've mentioned these kinds of banner adverts before to Jezebel and they've sent me apologetic responses and promises to do something about what they too see as a problem.

Meanwhile these adverts persist. I don't know much about how internet advertising works, but I suspect the adverts I'm seeing are provided by a third-party ad-server and reflect my nationality, based on my IP address, and possibly my presumed interests, eg based on the things I click on. It's likely that the adverts you see will be different. Because weight loss is such a perfectly-formed consumerist product, it makes sense that these are the ads that appear above an article about eating disorders. There's no equivalent advert for fat lib right now, though there may be in the future and that will also be problematic.

I don't know how much say Jezebel's editors have in deciding what kind of adverts appear on their site, perhaps very little. The content on Jezebel.com is also contingent on the business requirements of the parent company, and its context within an online marketplace.

What interests me is the inconsistency of the message from Jezebel, how this is likely out of the editors' control, and thus how difficult it is to produce strong, ongoing analyses of fat embodiment within popular culture without being undermined by wider economic-political systems.

It suggests an explanation about why fat activism is also an inconsistent social movement. In many ways I think this is good and right, it's pluralist rather than monolithic which means that it can be relevant to a lot of people. Yet I still yearn for consistency; clear, straightforward ideas that help people feel better and help me make sense of things. I think this might be wishful thinking and it's possible I might be happier if I could embrace the chaos a little more.

15 October 2010

Why I don't support Fat Talk Free® Week

Next week is Fat Talk Free® Week, an American sorority campaign (financially?) supported by some eating disorder groups, and businesses that include at first glance a financial planning service; a cosmetics company that sells anticellulite, anti-ageing and anti-wrinkle products; a handbag company; and a pilates studio with a website that features a bunch of skinny and muscular white body beautiful types prancing around in leotards. The idea is to stop the verbal denigration of fatness so that people can feel better about themselves. Fat Talk Free is a registered trademark.

This campaign is managing to synthesise many things that I dislike about some kinds of fat-related activism. I'm going to spell them out:

Censoring is ok
This campaign implicitly supports the idea that it's helpful and appropriate to shut down some kinds of talk, and therefore thought. It encourages people to police each other's language and thoughts. The suggestion is that if we don't think or verbalise these awful self-hating things, they will go away.

Censoring things does not make them go away, it usually drives that thing underground, or makes it shameful. We know that secrecy and shame are not a good basis for personal development, or embodied liberation. This is particularly true for groups of people who suffer eating disorders, who this campaign partially targets, who themselves are already steeped in secrecy and shame.

Fat talk is painful to hear in other people, and particularly maddening to witness in places where you cannot escape it, especially at work. But shutting people down because you hate the way they talk does not make the problem disappear. Do you want to be told not to talk about certain things? I don't, I wouldn't want to inflict that on other people and I wouldn't presume to be the person who decides what kind of talk is or isn't acceptable for anyone. Censorship is always a bad idea, whilst respectful dialogue and learning to be with people who are different to you are more compassionate and fruitful ways to manage these situations, to name but two peace-building strategies.

Capitalism is your friend
Where to start? The trademarking that transforms young women's activism into another branded marketing opportunity, or the weird collection of sponsors? Why is this thing trademarked? How transparent is an apparently neutral community campaign aimed at young women that relies on a trademark? Why is this campaign sponsored by companies that sell goods and services that apparently contradict its assumed body-positive messages? Is it inconsistent to participate in Fat Talk Free® Week and then buy a load of anticellulite(sic) product? I think so, but these people don't, it's all one big happy marketplace to them.

Our betters know best
I can't be the only chippy class warrior that resents Fat Talk Free® Week as a project of middle class privilege represented by the sorority system. I also resent the universalist assumptions presented within this very American institution, not just in terms of class (and maybe race too), but also nationality. We're not all the same, though this neoliberal censorship campaign masquerading as grassroots activism has assumed the 'proper voice' because of its access to power and has given itself the entitlement here to speak for everyone.

It's about, er, what?
Eating disorders, body image, and fat lib concepts are all jumbled together as though they are the same thing that is experienced homogenously.

Don't hate us
Not to support this apparently benign campaign is to risk being branded a hater who just doesn't understand. This is a form of social control and, I suspect, a feature of censorship. I'm expecting some testy comments on this post.

What would I like instead?

  • A campaign that gives practical ideas for creating dialogue about fat and bodies and food amongst people of all backgrounds.
  • A campaign that is not dictated to the rest of us by people with privilege.
  • A campaign about fat and bodies and food that is able to handle complexity and does not dumb down its subject matter.
  • A campaign that supports dialogue in spaces where you are free rather than a consumer who is being marketed to.
  • A campaign that actively welcomes feedback and constructive criticism.
  • A campaign about fat and bodies and food that works across different social justice areas, including, perhaps, censorship.

27 September 2010

Charlotte Cooper and Judy Freespirit in conversation, June 2010

Charlotte Cooper and Judy Freespirit, June 2010,
in the art room at the Jewish Home for the
Aged, San Francisco,
photographed by Esther Rothblum
Three months before Judy Freespirit died, Esther Rothblum took me to visit and interview her at the Jewish Home for the Aged in San Francisco, where Judy had lived for the past three years. Judy was in poor health but none of us knew how little time she had left.

I have a lot to say about this meeting but I'll save it for a separate essay.

I'm posting the raw interview transcript here as a resource for people to cite and analyse. I consider Judy to be an important figure in the history of critical understandings of fat and it is my hope that her work becomes more central to the discourse. I've edited the transcript slightly to remove some references to other people.

I offer my deepest gratitude to Judy and Esther.

Please visit Remembering Judy Freespirit for more information.

Judy Freespirit Interview, 7 June 2010

Charlotte: Ok, so we're going, and I can hear me, so that means I can probably hear you. I'm just going to prop that right there.

So I guess, I told you a bit about how I became radicalised around fat, and the stuff that I was reading, and I was wondering how you got the idea that fat could be a political thing.

Judy: I think the first real bang in my head that said: "Oh my god! This is more than you've been thinking" was, I was a student at Cal State LA and there was going to be some kind of a big demonstration there because the administration was allowing prejudice against students of colour in the area of housing. And so I was a member of CORE, you know CORE?

Charlotte: Mm-hmm.

Judy: I don't know which organisations were...

Charlotte: CORE is a pretty famous organisation, so, yeah, yeah.

Judy: Ok. So I was a member of CORE before they threw all the white folks out and we decided to demonstrate against the administration and force them to start not allowing people to discriminate in student housing. So I was picketing the administration, and there were maybe ten of us picketing, and there would always be twenty or thirty people making fun of us and laughing and saying things, and it was on a hill and further up the hill there were men with hats, you know, obviously some kind of government agents, taking notes and...

Charlotte: Oh.

Judy: It was during, you know, the J. Edgar Hoover period. So that was my first real activism. And the funny thing that hit me was the things that people were shouting had to do with my being fat. I was picketing and it had nothing to do with fat, it had to do with the administration being wrong in their discrimination, and people would try to get me by making fat jokes.

Charlotte: Right, so you were in this very politicised situation.

Judy: So all of a sudden I realised: "They are so angry about my being fat, why are they so angry? I'm too heavy and big them." You know. I mean. But it's like: "Ah, this is the way we can get her, because this is the thing that nobody's gonna disagree is not ok." So that's sort of my first rememberence.

Charlotte: Wow. That's an amazing moment, a lightbulb moment.

Judy: Yeah, a lightbulb moment.

21 September 2010

Research: language and the war on obesity

I'm glad that I'm living in a time and a place where I get to witness at close range the dying gasps of fat hatred through the desperate medium of scientific obesity research. The days are numbered for the people who produce this work because a bunch of us are on to them and we're not going to shut up about what we've found, for example:
  • That their research gets funded by companies that benefit from fat hatred
  • That they have non-existent or crapulous methodology
  • That their interpretation of results flies in the face of all that is scientifically reasonable
  • That their work is founded in prejudice and misinformation
  • That despite access to resources, they exclude critical perspectives
  • The complete absence of fat stakeholders within work which is supposed to be about us, which portrays fat people, or rather "the obese," as some kind of Othered subhuman lump of helplessness.
Et cetera.

Alternative ways of understanding fat are starting to emerge from Fat Studies and through activism and models such as Health At Every Size. These take a more sophisticated view of fat, and strive to recognise the humanity and agency of fat people.

So here I am, sitting in my deckchair in the garden of Fat Studies, flowers blooming, birdies tweeting, golden sunlight, and I'm watching obesity science implode over the other side of the fence where the ground is barren and the stinking dust chokes you. I'm thinking: "Burn, baby, burn."

Today's piece of obesity science schadenfreude, evidence of a dying empire, comes courtesy of the University of California, San Diego (also home to a group of amazing Fat Studies scholars, as it happens). Lead researcher Jeffrey Schwimmer's study confirms the concept 'infectobesity' which refers to a correlation between exposure to viruses or bacteria and being fat.

Whether or not Schwimmer's research offers any useful facts is not my interest here. What concerns me is that this study makes the concept of infectobesity concrete and real to people without any critical understanding of its social impact, or care that such a perspective is absent.

The same happened with Foresight's popularising of the concept obesogenic, meaning how environments supposedly cause people to become fat. Not long after that piece of work was published – and boy, was it ever a piece of work – you couldn't turn a page of The Guardian without coming across some posh twit using it to make themselves look knowledgeable, concerned and important.

The effect of obesogenic was that it legitimised judgmental middle class intrusion into working class people's lives in the UK through stereotyping of poor people's perceived lack of health knowledge, proposals for Healthy Towns and food labelling and taxation systems, as well as the increased surveillance over children through chubby fatphobe Jamie Oliver's school dinners campaign and the whole Change4Life fiasco. Good work!

Meanwhile, terms like obesogenic and infectobesity are problematic because they assume that fat is pathology rather than a part of the fabric of humanity (we think that biodiversity is a good thing, why doesn't this extend to people where fat is concerned?) and automatically conflate fatness with ill-health rather than address the structures which influence health, eg poverty, discrimination, stress. They seek reasons for explaining fatness so that it can ultimately be obliterated, a rationale that mirrors eugenicist social engineering, only this lot want to do it for profit. Infectobesity is worrying, too, because a viral explanation of fat is likely to lead to increased discrimination against and social exclusion of fat people.

Given the ferocity of these ideological attacks on fat people like you and I, it seems odd that one might feel pity for the world that this research represents. It's a strange reversal of the pity directed at fat folk through obesity science. But obesogenic and infectobesity represent ever more desperate attempts to explain fatness using the ever-dwindling touchstones of energy-balance and pathology. These concepts are being produced in the shadow of new scholarship that blows this narrow thinking out of the water and threatens the profitability of the businesses which fund such rubbish. These are the final gasps of a dying entity.

I thought I'd end this post with some ideas for alternative concepts upon which obesity scientists could base some studies. Feel free to suggest your own.

Fleabesity The belief that fatness is caused by bites from infected fleas.

Obesogreed A term which refers to the insatiable desire to cash-in on fat hatred through spurious scientific claims. Describes weight loss companies that fund research producing and endorsing obesity charities.

Meteobesity The belief that fatness is caused by changes in the weather, or meteors.

Obesignore The act of paying no attention to one's own research findings and instead reiterating the worthlessness of fat and the value of weight loss at any cost.

UFObesity The belief that fatness is caused by aliens.

Uselessblobesity The act of making fat people absent, abject and anonymous within obesity research.

Disobedieisty The belief that fatness is caused by bad thoughts.

Dinobesosaur The term by which old skool obesity scientists should now be understood.

08 September 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: charities have vested interests in WLS

I tend to tune out weight loss news stories, I figure that if you’ve seen one then you’ve seen ‘em all. But this juicy little number caught my eye this morning.

More obesity surgery 'could save millions of pounds'

Those rogues at the National Obesity Forum are behind this idiotic piece of research. I hesitate even to call it research because it’s of no value whatsoever and serves only to bolster this particular organisation’s eugenicist campaign of measuring and containing/annihilating fat people’s dangerous bodies. The tables look nicely formatted on the BBC website, I’ll give them that, but the numbers are meaningless without context or an explanation of the methodology.

This story is another salvo in favour of the argument that fat people are worthless lumps who are a terrible financial burden on society. Our poor health costs the economy countless millions. Lucky, then, that surgery is a magical fix, transforming these abstracted blobs of lard (ie you and I) into fully functioning members of society. What the research fails to take into account is the cost to the NHS of follow-up care for people whose health has been ruined by surgery, or of reduced life-expectancy relating to weight loss surgery. I wonder what kind of a dent that might make on this ridiculous cost-benefit analysis. Bodies here are machines to be tinkered with, and society is also a machine, where every tiny cog must play its part. Does this sound as bit fascist to you as it does to me?

At least the BBC mentioned that the research was funded by NOF chums, "two firms involved in making equipment used in obesity surgery". So they’d have no vested interest in increasing the numbers of people being recommended for weight loss surgery then, oh no. The NOF is for “Healthcare professionals who take an interest in the treatment and management of obesity” – one presumes so that they can cash in on it. Honestly, this whole report is so worthless that it beggars belief why it’s been published (I'm into the fat thermographs used to illustrate the piece though, ooh, hot hands, cold arse).

I would like to be part of a group that spits out press releases and refashions obesity research. If fatphobe numbskulls at the NOF can have this level of success in getting their hateful propaganda out in the world, it’s surely no stretch to start getting messages of a different kind out there. Anyone wanna start an obesity charity with me? I’ve got a mate who can design us some official-looking letterheads.

24 August 2010

Archival images of fat women

I'm clearing my desk before I head off to Australia and there are a couple of things I've been meaning to post here for a while. Both images are courtesy of Simon Murphy, who brought them to my attention.

1. The Honeymoon Killers features one of my favourite screen fatties in Shirley Stoler who plays Martha Beck. Her fatness is a central part of her characterisation and her portrayal is unforgettable, she's pathetic and murderous. In an age where fat people conform certain themes and storylines whenever we are rendered onscreen, including 'positive' portrayals, it's always exciting to see depictions that offer a bit more nuance. This is possible even within an exploitation genre. I also love to see fat people in films as aggressive, crazy, mean and fucked-up, which may explain my obsession with this clip of Divine from Pink Flamingos.

2. I wrote about my visit to the GLBT Historical Society whilst I was in San Franciso earlier this year. I got to paw and prod some of Sylvester's stage costumes. This week Simon picked me up a copy of The Weather Girls' album, Success. Martha Wash and Izora Armstead were the original Weather Girls and worked as backing singers for Sylvester. I read somewhere that s/he used to get them to break in her shoes too, huh! I never have to hear It's Raining Men again, it won't be too soon, but I love love love the picture on the album sleeve for these reasons:
  • Turbans
  • Neck detailed fatty kaftan couture
  • Outfits dripping with beads and jewels
  • Gloves
  • Awkwardly posed grandiose gesture as literal interpretation of album's title
  • Round faces
  • Successful fat black women working together who, I hope, are still laughing all the way to the bank

11 August 2010

This is what a fat activist looks like

Being an activist means that I make stuff and I do stuff. Often this is about fat, but it's also about zines, the internet, films, academia, sex, all kinds of things. My fat and queer body is central to my cultural production, I cannot deny it even though, like many people, my body is often mediated by a screen, a mouse and a keyboard. My friend Sara Davidmann, who also happens to be an excellent photographer, took some pictures of me in a nest of some of the things I have made. That's me in the picture, pulling things I've made out of my cunt, my body. Here I am: fat, queer, a thinking, critical and productive citizen, "the obese". This is what a fat activist looks like, I'm one of many different kinds of fat activist.

30 July 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: language and shaming

This news story made me cackle because it's an amazing looking glass inversion of debates about language that continue in fat activism.

Say fat not obese, says minister

(Short note: I'm not into policing language and I think it would be a dull, reductive and Orwellian world if we all used the same words all the time. My feeling is that people should use the language to describe themselves with which they feel most comfortable. The rest of us should try and treat those labels respectfully.)

I had to do a double-take when I first read this article. My initial reaction to a quick skim of the headline was: "Yeah! Call me fat! That's exactly what I want, skip this obese nonsense." I reject obese because I don't want to be defined as a victim of a terrible disease, as someone who need curing, as a tragic figure for pity and paternalistic intervention. But the definition of fat being mooted in this article is as something appalling and dreadful, a shaming weapon. These guys really think that fat is an insult, they don't get it as a marker of one's identity and experience, or a way of describing communities, or its politicised nature. What a shame the BBC did not have the breadth of vision to get quotes from people who might have an alternative viewpoint.

Depending on your perspective, 'obese' is either kindly or oppressive and 'fat' is shameful or liberating. Look, I drew a table to illustrate how the kinds of words each likes to use is a polar opposite of the other.

Aside from my cackling, this story is also a depressing example of how alienated each of these two groups are from each other, a situation which is not helped by the the mainstream media. We literally don't speak the same language. It makes me despair that some kind of common, respectful understanding of fat could ever be developed between these two groups of people. It seems like another example of how the inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the Global Obesity EpidemicTM (initiated by weight loss industry stooges) has sabotaged people's access to non-shaming, appropriate healthcare.

22 July 2010

Fatphobic feminists and jumble sales

An amazing and somewhat lively/vitriolic debate is going on over at The F-Word in response to a post about the Big Bum Jumble. Who knew that plus-size second hand clothes could provoke such a reaction? It's depressing to see the piece hijacked into going-nowhere debates about health. Read, marvel, despair and join in at your leisure.

19 July 2010

Interview: Amanda Piasecki

I recently had the great fortune to spend some quality time with Amanda Piasecki in Oakland, California. Super-smart, thoughtful, gorgeous, funny and generous, she got me thinking about the Bay Area, and about the influence of radical groups on early fat political movements, amongst other things. We also filmed ourselves dancing Janelle Monàe's Tightrope dance in her front room. Amanda is a 21st century activist through and through, she understands popular culture, and radical fat embodiment, and she uses interactive media skillfully and seamlessly. Her depth of knowledge enables her to bring a fresh and critical perspective to the current state of fat activism. She is one rad fatty! Read more and swoon.

Please introduce yourself

I'm Amanda Piasecki, I'm a working stiff, a tired artist, and an aspiring public intellectual who is interested in the intersections between bodies, identities, and aesthetics. I'm interested in fatness in part because of my lifetime struggle to peacefully occupy my own body. Fat, female, queer, cancer-surviving, and otherwise – I seem to be relentlessly living despite the hype. Fat bodies' contemporary role as death symbols is also particularly interesting to me, partly because scaring the shit out of people is an interesting social proscription to live with. I'm also more pragmatically interested in the challenging, sometimes tedious work of fat people and other outsiders resisting hate and developing vibrant, self-supporting cultures.

The most wide-reaching thing that I've done is coin the term "Fatshionista" and start the online community of the same name. I also served on the NOLOSE board for six years and have done some good and bad performance and installation work that explores fatness.

I grew up in tiny, remote town, three miles from the Canadian border in Northern NY, US, and now live in Oakland, CA, US. My family are immigrants and working class freethinkers (not an oxymoron!). I'm a born world-straddler – I learned very early to accept dialectical realities simultaneously – a quality that has served me well in the work of building culture and community among people from radically different backgrounds who may only have their size in common. I'm both tough and lucky.

I'm also unemployed at the moment, so if anyone wants to give me a job, I'm really good at building online communities, running websites, teaching, and curriculum development. Hire me! Got a PhD program? Pay me to enlist.

What's it like to have invented a mass movement?

It's tremendously discombobulating to see this seemingly exponential stream of on- and offline cultural production related to fatshion and Fatshionista. Of course, there's thousands of people now involved in the "Fatosphere", so building this "movement" is not even remotely all about me – in fact, there's plenty of people involved who have no idea that I started Fatshionista, especially since I'm not involved anymore and the internet attention span is so abominably short. However, sometimes the community's wide-reaching impact smacks me over the head and I'm reminded that I made that thing. I find it both mind-blowing and alienating to see so many people directly changed and challenged by my thinking.

What do you think of the state of fatshion at the moment? What are the things that you like? Where would you like to see it go?

I'm relieved on one hand that enormous companies are starting to understand that there's money to be mined in the plus-size fashion market so that fat people have more access to the resources to adequately cover our asses. On the other hand, I don't think that having more consumer choices in the Anglosphere is at all the measure of fat liberation. I think that fatshionistas should take the sartorial resourcefulness and creative zeal learned from historical scarcity and leave the sweatshops behind. When possible, I encourage folks to buy used, make their own, and buy from small designers.

I'm tremendously pleased about the ways in which the cultural zeitgeist toward valuing the handmade, at least in North America, has expanded to include plus-size fashion. I love the designers I've seen selling their work on Etsy and in venues like the Kiss the Curves fashion show in Oakland. This is the direction I'd like to see fatshion go.

Some of my favorites are, in no order of preference:

Chocolate Sushi Couture

Cupcake & Cuddlebunny

Size Queen Clothing


I'm also so impressed with small business owners like Deb Malkin at Re/Dress NYC who are doing the work of selling affordable vintage and used clothing and serving as fat-positive community hubs at the same time.

Whenever possible, my dollar is allocated to these folks way before Lane Bryant.

Fundamentally, I believe that style is not about cash outlay, but is about creatively working what you have. I also think that style and fashion are fine, but being a badass fatass is even more important.

Charlotte: Amanda talks more about fashion and style over on the Big Bum Jumble blog.

What are your tips for fat people who want to dance?

Fat people who want to dance but are hung up on social stigma need to start dancing right now – like right this minute, in your living room, in the bathroom, only by tapping your toe, whatever you've got. If you can't do it, message me, I'll dance in front of Skype with you, and way more foolishly. Now's the time.

I've always been a not-particularly-skilled but extremely enthusiastic dancer. I'm no Burlesque, ballroom, or bellydancer – I don't belong in a public performance of any kind – but I think that pursuing embodiment through dancing for regular people is tremendously worthwhile. Dancing for five minutes in my living room or three hours at a party completely knocks me into my body like few other pursuits, and I want everyone who is so inclined to experience this.

About my favorite way to dance is dance-karaoke style, with my dear friend Devra and anyone else who's willing. Here's how it works: you get some YouTube videos, you clear a space in your living room, and you dance along. Hijinx ensue. It can be embarrassing and possibly dangerous, but I really recommend it. Devra and I have run workshops at the last two NOLOSE conferences called "Master of Dance" in which we lead groups in this ridiculousness.

Could you share a few online clips of your favourite dance sequences, and say why you like them?

Here are some favorite videos:

Fat Dancer This fat Belgian guy is my hero. I think he's sexy as fuck while having a wicked sense of humor about what his fat sexuality might mean to people. And his moves, Jesus Christ! I think he must be the child of fat punks. He makes me feel old, but I love him. I can only last like one minute into dancing along with this video before my knees give out and I need my asthma inhaler.

In the Bush dance 2 - Part 13 I aspire to be Ms. Tengobaila. She's my dance leader of choice lately – she just dances, films herself, and puts it on YouTube – she has hundreds of videos! I found this video because I love the song – 'Push, Push In the Bush,' by Musique, and love the video because Ms. Tengobaila was clearly there in 1978 at Studio 54 getting her thing on, and because she really goes for it – sweat, pelvic thrusts, delicate hand movements and all. She's no joke.

Kamal Haasan - Tamil Bollywood Star What can I say about this video? The way that this guy locates his masculinity in his fierce dance moves is something that completely trumps American Marlboro Man or GI Joe masculinity in my eyes. This video makes me want to be more butch.

Could you say a little bit about your interest in medical self advocacy for fat people?

My experience having rare cancer at age 18 taught me much earlier than most people that doctors only really know part of the story when it comes to all of the weird-ass maladies that afflict the human body. I also learned that each individual is definitively the authority on her body's own experience, and that there's no morality attached to disease or bodily diversity.

Fat people are under such attack by the healthcare establishment that it feels crucial to me to share what I know with whomever I can, even if I don't have the entire story myself. I also think that the power dynamics between healthcare providers and patients are so deeply imbalanced, especially in the American healthcare system, that it's almost impossible for anyone to get good care, let alone people as seriously medically pathologized as fat people. I've run medical self-advocacy workshops for the last ten years or so in part so that people have a forum in which to deal with being so deeply shamed by the healthcare system, and figure out how to maximise the care that we get anyway.

What makes Oakland a compelling place to live?

Oakland is historically a tough working class town, home in the 1970s of the Black Panther Party, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and an infamous Hells Angels branch. It's an incredibly diverse city and where many Bay Area radicals and regular people who lack the money to pay San Francisco rents make their homes. It's a beautiful underdog city, and I'm proud to call it my home.

Speaking of Oakland, what can fat activists learn from the Black Panthers?

The Black Panthers' militant reputation doesn't begin tell the whole story about them, nor can I tell it here. In addition to being armed revolutionaries, the Panthers were also hard-working social change pragmatists who created amazing community programs like the Free Breakfast for Children program, which was the model for the breakfast programs that now exist in public schools throughout the US.

The Panthers' Ten Point Plan is a powerful and incredibly well-articulated example of what self-determination might look like and the Free Breakfast for Children program is one practical way the Panthers helped make their vision a reality.

While comparing the struggle of fat people to the struggle the Panthers faced is not possible, nor is it the goal, I challenge fat activists to take inspiration from the Ten Point Plan and articulate our own vision for a self-determined reality, then take practical steps to make it come to fruition.

What's next for you?

Next for me is figuring out how to pay my rent if the US Senate votes down extending unemployment benefits. Stay tuned for the rest.

What else do you want to say?

Thanks for giving me a forum to express my thinking and for being a fierce, hardworking dynamo, Charlotte. I tremendously appreciate all that you do. (Charlotte: Thanks! Sob! And backatcha!)

14 July 2010

Conference Report: NOLOSE 2010

It's over a month since NOLOSE and I'm still overwhelmed by the experience. When people ask me how it was I have no way of answering. Words like 'intense' and 'amazing' seem about right but they don't really come close. I thought I'd use this blog post to process it a little and yeah, it's personal. NOLOSE is different for everyone and this is a bit of what it was like for me.

This was the first time, perhaps ever, I'm not sure, that NOLOSE was held on the West Coast of the United States. This was a significant shift because California is the motherlode for fat queer, trans and dyke culture and many superfat Nolosers live there. It's also perpetually sunny, and the location helped make it possible for us to have a whole accessible venue to ourselves. It was also the busiest NOLOSE I've seen, and the one with the most diverse crowd.

During the course of the conference the Oakland Airport Econolodge became Fatlandia, a kind of utopia. The pool was rarely empty, the meeting rooms were named after fat animals ("I'll see you in Manatee!"), friends and loves from far-flung places got to spend time with each other, and it was like a little temporary village of rad fatness, and there was a lot of joy. A week later I heard that Luscious had died suddenly. Part of what is making NOLOSE hard to process is thinking about Luscious' presence there. For me, this NOLOSE has become idealised in the sunshine, like a space before the Fall. It's very difficult to think about, so I'll focus on the concrete things first.

Katie LeBesco interviewed me for a documentary she's making. She asked hard questions! I think it's going to be a great piece of work, be very excited about its release. It was fun bumping into Linda Bacon as I walked on the set, and Esther Rothblum as I left, and so flattering to be represented as a peer to these legendary authors and activists.

I chose to do workshops that were about feeling embodied, rather than discussion-based activities. This is partly because for the last few months I've been stuck at my desk and I had a real itch to move and feel connected to my flesh. So there was synchronised swimming; a bunch of us learned the Thriller dance ('give new meaning to the term "morbid obesity'") which we later sprung on an unsuspecting audience at the dance; I meditated with my belly out; threw myself around at the deranged Master of Dance session; and participated in Nomy Lamm's beautiful and unforgettable Singing As Social Justice workshop.

My activities included a workshop, a co-chairing the keynote panel, reading at Queer Memoir, and working at the Den of Desire, a fat activist brothel. (Yes, you read that right, and I'll write more about this some other time). I really loved Galadriel Mozee's keynote presentation during the panel. She talked about the food justice movement from a radical fat perspective, one which is often overlooked within a paradigm that tends to demonise obesity. It was also a pleasure to hear Deb Burgard speak, I've been a fan of hers for a long time and it was great to hear her debunking healthism within the fat rights movement.

Our own workshop was another highlight. A large group of us constructed a queer and trans fat activist timeline together. We pasted it up on the wall and people added their own memories of significant historic events. Some people gave oral accounts which I recorded. This timeline will form the basis of a zine which will be archived around the world. People are so cut off from the history of the movement, I want to do something to rectify that situation. It was wonderful to see activists of different generations all adding their work to the timeline. The earlier years were fairly sparse, but the last decade has seen an explosion of activity. It was very exciting and inspiring to see it all forming before our very eyes.

Through sheer exhaustion I missed the discussion about extending NOLOSE to cisgendered queer men, a stretching workshop, a session by Nancy Thomas who was involved with the historic FAT LIP Reader's Theatre, the Mixed-Size Relationship Caucus, and the play party. Ach. But I managed to catch Elana Dykewomon reading The Real Fat Woman Poems, and I stayed for the community meeting at the end. There were also group meals, schmoozing, dancing and performances, and times hanging out with some of the most amazing people in the world.

And then it was over. One minute I was jumping for joy and hugging people I hadn't seen for ages, the next we were all dispersed. It's so strange how Fatlandia feels like the norm when you're in its midst, as though life is always like this, and when it's no longer there you can't help but feel bereft. Some people stayed in the motel after the conference was over and they said it was like a ghost town. For me, it all feels like a funny dream.

Past NOLOSE conferences have given me a massive boost, like a dose of something strong that enables me to function in the real world. This one felt more complicated and mellow than that, perhaps it was because I was busy, or that there were simply a lot of complex dynamics going on. This was my fourth conference, so perhaps I am just becoming more seasoned, or at least more aware of the politics and business that goes on behind the scenes. Having said that, it's still a thrill to see new people getting into it and loving the space, especially international delegates. It still takes my breath away, and I still treasure those moments that can happen here but which are unlikely to happen anywhere else. I think it is a vital event, life-affirming and life-changing, and I will keep going and supporting it for as long as I can.

By the way, the NOLOSE Board is recruiting new members. Get in touch through the website, sign up, volunteer, join in, help make it good.

Intergenerational fat activism with Charlotte and Meryl

I met Meryl Trussler earlier this year when she invited me to speak about fat stuff at Ladyfest Goldsmiths. For someone who thought she did not know much about fat activism, she really took the baton and started running. Since then she's founded LDN XL GRRRLS, through which she is producing a zine. She has a lot of drive and I think she's someone we should keep an eye on.

For the zine, we decided together that it would be good to have a conversation about fat, sort of like a cross-generational thing between a younger activist who is new to the movement (that's Meryl with the moustache) and an older one who's been around the block a bit (that's me Living the Dream). Neither of us are claiming to speak for everyone, we just wanted to create some dialogue.

The conversation turned out to be a long one! We've got a lot of things to tell each other, it seems. A slightly edited version will feature in the LDN XL GRRRLS zine, along with Meryl's beautiful illustrations, some of which I've pinched for here, but here's the longer piece.

Charlotte: why do you think fat is political?

Meryl: Well, you know I'm a newcomer to fat politics, so I know my answer is gonna be all stunted by misinformation, but here's what I think so far: because like abortion and contraception, like homosexuality, it's one of those things that make the public bristle and think they're somehow allowed a say in what you do with your own body. And I do think it shares that ground with those issues of gender and sex for a reason. It has the power to both make bodily gender explicit (think of the Lane Bryant lingerie ad that was said to be too racy, alongside the apparently less problematic half-naked skinny chix we see every day on TV) and to disguise/queer it completely (the issue of "man boobs" etc.) And that scares the shit out of the media because they want sexuality but they want it their way, contained and categorised. Aside from gender issues, I think politicians are afraid of us because they've come to think of us as indicators of all their country's failings, e.g. the recession, couch potato culture, joblessness and so on. Because the idea that this stuff CAUSES fat still permeates, which we fat activists know is bull. They should be proud to have us!

Charlotte: wow, great answer! I'd add that it's political because of the effects of stigma and discrimination on fat people, and the idea that we need civil rights and recognition of our value in order to counter that stuff.

Meryl: Do you think "thin" as the beauty standard is here to stay?

Charlotte: If you think of historic and cross-cultural readings of The Body and of the way that beauty is recognised in bodies, you could say that thin as a beauty ideal is not here to stay. Although it feels so ubiquitous to you or me, there is evidence to the contrary: people feel differently about bodies – women's bodies mostly – across time and place, therefore things will change eventually.

However, these readings can be really problematic because they tend to try and force one model of understanding beauty or bodies onto another context where that external model is irrelevant. This can end up being racist and colonialist, or historically reductive and naïve, and it requires us to ask questions about who is producing this knowledge and why. So I'm really wary of parroting the popular line that "in some cultures/historical eras it's ok to be fat".

I think there are systemic forces that make thinness the idea in 21st century western culture. If you look at capitalism, for example, standardised bodies that are generally thin make sense because they are easier to sell standardised production line goods and services to – fat bodies are wildly diverse, we don't fit that world. So I think challenging the predominance of slenderness as a capitalist ideal means also taking on wider political and philosophical ideologies. These are so powerful, and only one part of why thin is an ideal, that I think yeah, it's pretty likely that thin as a dominant culture beauty standard is here to stay.

On the other hand, I think people interpret beauty in their own idiosyncratic ways. I don't think there is a beauty ideal, I think there are loads of different ideals and that they are chaotic and contradictory. I get called beautiful fairly often and I look like a fat dyke freak, which is what I am, and quite far away from a fashion model standard, yet I'm a hot proposition in some of the circles in which I move. Perhaps what people are becoming more conscious of is that beauty is not fixed, and that it can mean many different things. I think the current hippy/ Buddhist/ mindfulness trend I'm encountering in alternative cultures, which is often preoccupied with the concept of gratitude, is also about finding beauty in the everyday, for example, and in expanding notions of beauty.

I also think that beauty has many limitations, it's somewhat bourgeois! I'm not interested in supporting the kinds of power relationships that beauty underpins, where beauty is a hierarchy. I don't know, either, that beauty is the driving force for most people. I mean, I love to be surrounded by beauty, beauty motivates me, but it also seems irrelevant.

Ok, here's another question: as a young fat activist, starting out, what do you want and need from older people who have more experience of the movement?

Meryl: Mostly I just need reassurance that there is any point at all in it. I know one of the biggest purposes of FA, for me, is that it makes ME feel better, and that there's a sense of community that is really... nourishing to the soul. It emboldens me and makes me stop holding back from things because of my size. Now a part of me knows that if it did that for me, it can do that for other fat girls (which is what I'm trying to do with this zine to some extent), and that is of course a massive achievement. But on the other hand there's kind of a ceiling to it. As confident as we might be, there is still going to be external hatred pushing us back. And I don't know if there's anyone who can completely bulletproof themselves from being hurt by that. I feel like there's only so far we can get when, you know, The Man is so impenetrably cruel, so impossible to change.

So I guess my counter question is, do you feel like it's actually possible to change dominant societal views on fat? Because so far I feel like the only people opening up to body acceptance are the people who really, really, deep down, longed to be able to accept themselves as-is in the first place.

Charlotte: I think fat is relevant to many people, not just those who are fat or want to feel happily embodied. Part of what makes fat such an interesting subject is that it is implicated in so many areas of modern life, including health and medicalisation, economics, corporatism, equality, rights, body stuff, legitimacy, gender, power, race, beauty, class, all of it. This means that there are loads of stakeholders.

I thinks social views do change but I'm not sure of the process by which that happens. Obvious interventions like legal rights or being visible make a difference, but the nitty gritty of social change is more elusive and is contingent on so many factors. You might do some kind of fat activism with the idea that it will make some kind of positive difference and it has a completely unpredictable, and maybe unwanted, outcome.

Also, fat people are a diverse group, often brought together only by our body size, and there are disagreements on the best way to create social change. I think this highlights a mythology, the belief that only unity can create change. I think in reality social change is much more fragmented and wild, it happens in ways that can't be controlled, it has a life of its own. I suppose my approach to activism is to do stuff that makes sense to me, is fun and interesting, life-affirming, and hope that the ripples touch other people. Sometimes this happens and it's very satisfying. There are lots of people and organisations out there creating their own ripples too.

Now you! What sort of social change would you like to see around fat?

Meryl: I guess because I'm always trying to climb inside the media/pop culture beast I focus the most on that. Like you say, social change happens in so many ways - bringing in size discrimination laws like they have in San Francisco would actually get pretty immediate notice, but the kind of change I think is easiest to effect is the slow-release kind that works through the kind of images to which people are exposed. I think "normalising" is a powerful force. Even as a fat chick, I used to stare at other fat people; through following the blogs that I follow now, I see so many images of beautiful fat women that it no longer comes off as novelty. I think the same thing could work on a greater scale. All I want to see is fat characters in TV shows whose weight doesn't define them, and fat models in photoshoots that aren't part of Glamour or Dove's self-congratulatory bloody "real women" campaigns, and fat people in art who aren't there to represent corporate gluttony etc... I just want to see a more accurate portrayal of reality in the media. But then I see fashion magazines who would rather blackface their models than hire a woman of colour for some godawful "tribal trend" shoot, and I know that realistic representation is a long way off for all of us.

How do you think we can best respond to discrimination and hatred when it's happening to us on the spot, on the streets?

Charlotte: I think the bottom line is about doing what you can to prioritise your physical and mental safety when this kind of thing happens. Some people are more fragile than others, and harassment can really ruin a good day. I find it helpful to remember that people harassing me don't know me at all, and therefore have no claim on my value as a human.

In terms of harassment, I use several strategies:

1. Ignore it. People say things because they want a reaction from me, I don't give it to them or escalate that kind of violence, I walk away from it. This is my most common response.

2. Turn it into a teachable moment. Sometimes there are opportunities for having creative discussions about crappy behaviour. This is rare and relies on my not being a pompous windbag (my natural state).

3. Attack. This works if you are with a group of people. Charge with your bellies and flab flying, scream, look as terrifying as you can, laugh and ridicule. Harassers do not expect this response from fat people and it freaks them out in a satisfying way.

In all cases, talk about it with people you love and trust and/or write about it or process it in some way. Don't keep it to yourself or bottle it up. I don't get verbal harassment so much these days, though I get hate mail, which I always share and often publish.

When the heat of the incident and the upset has died down, you're in a better position to think about what might be done in the longer-term, perhaps to organise around the issue. Again, this is good to talk through with people.

Now you: what do you like about fat people?

Meryl: I'm a firm believer that we are no different than anyone else apart from the various struggles we go through, and I wouldn't want to make generalisations. I can speak better for fat activists, or body acceptance advocates in general. I just love their bravery, their determination, and their camaraderie. I love having great food on the table without it requiring a 20 minute discussion about how we shouldn't be eating it for whatever reason. I love not having to fight with people to get them to accept a compliment. And I love being able to talk about how much I hate certain advertisements or movies without being thought of as a complete buzzkill!

The fat body itself, I think, also lends itself so well to analogy, which pleases me as the flowery writer that I am. I think it's as pleasing a body type as any other, and it comes in so MANY shapes! I noticed that stretch-marks can look like a fading out firework trail, and that made me smile.

How do you think the parallel universe Thin Charlotte's life would be like? What advantages have being fat had for you?

Charlotte: The only benefit I can think of in that parallel universe is that plane travel would be more comfortable. I'd be a fussier dresser because I'd have access to more clothes. But I think I'd be more likely to be straight, I'd be more ignorant about a lot of things, I'd be less developed and mature as a person. I'd have fewer ways of understanding things about fat because I wouldn't have direct experience of it, so ironically I might have more internalised fatphobia. I'd still be formed and/or fucked up by other life experiences.

I think the fantasy of a parallel thin me is really seductive, but it's empty when you take it apart, it would bring me very few benefits. People think that being fat is a tragedy but I owe so much to it. Not that my fat body has necessarily created all of these opportunities, it's me, my drive and intelligence, and ability to capitalise on it too, I think. But fat is at the centre of my creative, community, political, emotional, social, intellectual, financial lives. It's brought me everything that I care about.

09 July 2010

Public weighing scales are really strange

I was in Berlin last week and I noticed these vintage weighing machines on the platforms of a couple of U-Bahn stations, the older ones, I'm guessing. You put ten cents in and it spits something out, possibly a card with your weight on it, I don't know I didn't have the right change. There's a height and weight table attached to the front, a height measuring scale on the side, complete with hook where you presumably hang your coat.

I don't know how many of these scales are out on the platforms of Berlin's underground, or if they exist in other parts of Germany or German-speaking Europe. They're quite unobtrusive, but once I saw one I started noticing them elsewhere. Going away highlights the strangeness of everyday life. I've seen weighing scales in public places in the UK too but have never paid much attention to them until now.

It makes me wonder why one might need to be weighed on the platform of a train station, or any public place, and also why would one need to be weighed in general. Their presence and incongruity smack of body surveillance culture and the idea that we can never forget that how much we weigh is really important.

It reminds me of an experience I had in San Francisco last month (yes, I've been around a bit). There was another set of weighing scales outside a South American convenience store in the Mission. It was shaped like a rocket ship. For 25¢ it tells you how much you weigh on Earth, the Moon (something like 15% of your earth weight) and Mars (approximately half your earth weight). A lo-fi electronic display presents a narrative that includes a countdown and a pretend voyage to the stars, whilst telling you these various weights inbetween. I'm sorry I have no pictures, I was mostly too gob-struck by the whole experience to get my camera out. It was no Yay-Scale, but it was fun and really bizarre. God only knows what this is all about.

08 July 2010

Goodbye Change4Life?

Great news! No more government cash will be given to the execrable Change4Life programme. It's the silver lining in the otherwise terrible new British government's campaign of funding cuts.

Terrible news! It will now be privately funded and become even more of a hideous train wreck of fat hatred than before.

Obesity marketing campaign 'cut'

Fat art that reproduces fat abjection

A couple of Nick Turvey sculptures have been picked as part of the Fitzwilliam Museum Sculpture Promenade 2010, in Cambridge, and will be there until next January. One of them is called 'venus' and BoingBoing reported: "It's carved from a block of upholstery foam, and coated in a rubber skin, so when you grab hold of those rolls of fat you find they are actually soft. Some people are disgusted, others love it, but it's certainly provoking reactions. It's one of a series I'm making about the materiality of the human body."

The artist's own statement goes like this: "a new kind of realism, using abstraction to trigger responses at a neural level ... quasi-musical variations or transformations of a simple, rhythmic form ... a set of possibilities like the malic molds, shaping the spangles of illuminating gas/ether ... the human body as a material object in myth, propaganda, dream and fetish ..." (Yeah, me neither).

I'm interested in what people think of as being a 'positive image' of fatness because 'positive' is such a subjective concept. I suspect that some people regard this sculpture as a positive image of fat. Look at the ladies giving her belly rolls a good old feel in the picture, for which the file is called venus-hug. Hug the fatty! It's lovely! But this sculpture really creeps me out and I want to say why.

'venus' sounds like an allusion to ancient fat female figurative sculptures that include the Venus of Willendorf, who has been appropriated by fat activists. But where those figures have at least heads, this venus is a representation of a fat woman who is nothing but her rolls of fat. Turvey is right when he mentions the word fetish, I think this is what he has produced: a representation of a fat woman as fetish object. Judging by the comment to BoingBoing, or his oblique artist's statement, I don't know if he has done this intentionally or understands its implications.

For me, a positive image of a fat woman might include some sense of autonomy. Ideally it would be produced by someone who has direct experience of a fat woman's subject position. I don't see any of that here. Instead, I look at venus and wonder: Where is her mouth? If she had a mouth, what would she say? "Get the fuck off me!" "Where are my rights?" Instead, a fat woman is diminished here through abstraction into little more than something passive, accommodating, squidgy and lovely – a magical fatty – and/or a disgusting blob. It's so limited. We deserve better representations than this.

Like John Yeadon's recent crap art I wonder if this sculpture is also a misguided product of mainstream obesity discourse, albeit a weak attempt to offer a more enlightened reading. It makes me long for art produced by people who actually have a clue about fat; Allyson Mitchell is one whose work is amazing, but yes Amanda Piasecki, I'm looking at you, and yes Stefanie Snider, I'm desperate to read your art criticism too.

07 July 2010

Jenny Craig is a tool of The Man

Mo Kalman gave me this in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago. It's old and it's good.

29 June 2010

The XXL Racism Boycott

A shit storm is taking off over comments made by Mark Ames on his Facebook page, the settings for which have now been changed to private. Ames is the owner of XXL, one of the most popular Bear clubs in London.

The Pink Paper trumpeted an exclusive this morning: Club founder causes Facebook furore with Muslim boycott, which gives some background. There's also the inevitable Facebook protest page, which states: "Before you spend any money at one of the XXL clubs or parties, please be aware of the opinions of its owner... whilst he may not see his views as racist, anybody else with an iota of sense can work out that lumping Muslims and those fighting against allied forces in Afghanistan is backwards, silly and racist." It goes on to say: "Hit Mark Ames where it hurts: in his pocket," and "Stop going to XXL 'til he sees the error of his ways."

I've got more to say about XXL which is not about race but is about the club being a problematic space for fat people. Of the £50,000 raised by XXL Bear Pride in 2008 a percentage was donated to The British Heart Foundation. Ames told The Pink Paper in May of that year: "I, like many others, was unhappy about how HIV charity cash was being used, it didn't seem to be coming back to the people who need it or making a difference. So this year I am giving what we raise to charities that reflect my customers."

The British Heart Foundation are one of the biggest providers in the UK of weight loss publications for health professionals and the public, including children. They promote dieting through public information campaigns, advertising and the media. Their approach to fat and weight loss is one that has long been criticised by fat activists and proponents of Health At Every Size.

Given that XXL is a place where fat and big men are desired, it is perplexing that Ames thinks the BHF reflects his customers' best interests. By going to XXL, punters enjoy a space that celebrates fat queer sexuality but they also fund a charity that cannot recognise such a thing, let alone support it. The BHF is not a small, struggling queer initiative that could really use the cash, its total income was £170 million in 2007, according to CaritasData. They have no specific gay health programmes or information targeted towards LGBT people. I can't see how they benefit the Bears at all.

This blog has been quiet over the past few weeks because I've been busy interviewing fat activists for my research study. One of the things that has come up again and again is how fat is intrinsically tied to other social justice movements, how fat activism emerged from civil rights movements in the US in the 1960s, especially anti-racism. It is my belief that a truly liberating social space cannot exist where some forms of oppression are addressed whilst others are tolerated. So although XXL is seen as a fat positive space, somewhere that big and fat guys and their admirers can get together, a rebuttal of some kinds of oppressive lookism within gay men's culture, a party that supports racism is not fat positive, and neither is one that trades on self-hatred.

I think there's a mistaken belief that fat lib is a liberal movement. However, fat people are a diverse group, one that unfortunately includes racists. Other fat activists, most notably Tara Shuai, have talked about tacit racism within fat activism, yet depressingly few (white) fat activists discuss this stuff. I hope the outrage surrounding Ames' comments kick-starts some dialogue. Either way, it'll be interesting to see if protests against XXL trade on fatphobia, and/or if XXL punters decide to support racism, would they be willing to make such a compromise in order to keep the party going?

PS. This just in: Bears Against Bigotry - yay!

18 June 2010

Do You Wanna Funk? Fat, queer archives, and Sylvester

The other day I had the good fortune to spend some time looking at some of the holdings at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco. I had some common-or-garden research to do, which was interesting and rewarding in its own way, but I also took the opportunity to have a look at some of the other material that this incredible and unique archive looks after. One of the collections is a group of boxes containing some of the stage costumes owned and worn by Sylvester.

You may not know who Sylvester was, in which case look him/her up on Wikipedia, or read Joshua Gamson's biography. The extremely simplified version is that Sylvester made some of the most sublime records to dance to in the world, was Black and what we might call genderqueer today, and died way before her time of an AIDS-related illness in 1988. This is someone you should know about, a person who provided the soundtrack to a generation of queers, may of whom also died in that first devastating wave of AIDS.

I've heard Sylvester called fat, and this has often intrigued me. His body size is not always apparent in photographs, and sometimes he looks chubbier than others. People's bodies change, and hers would likely have changed dramatically too as she faced her final illness.

So I had a break and asked the archivists to pull out Sylvester's costumes for me to paw and prod. I love a flamboyant, overly-sequinned outfit on any day of the week, and I was also interested in their size and shape. I wondered if these might be costumes worn by a fat person, and from that, if Sylvester might be a historical rad fatty whose life people might turn to for clues in how to live today.

I looked at four boxes of clothes containing a couple of sequinned jackets; a pink sequinned trouser suit, a white, glittery dress in the style of a wedding dress; a layered peach ensemble, with silky pyjama trousers, a sequinned apron, and heavy sequinned jacket; and a gigantically pouffy black sequinned batwing jacket/dress, with hanging ties, and matching space-age style skullcap hat covered with feathers and other embellishments.

I wore white archival cotton gloves and the archivists help me take the garments out of the boxes and inspect them. I didn't ask to try them on, though I wanted to, I knew that would be a no-no. Everything was carefully wrapped in tissue, I handled the outfits gingerly.

I didn't expect to be so moved by the experience of looking at someone long dead's stage outfits. I think it was something to do with the contrast between the larger-than-life colour and pizzazz of the sequins and glitter which contrasts so greatly with the awful reality of Sylvester's passing, not to mention the deaths of countless others like him. I was moved that these costumes had been preserved lovingly, and grateful for the work of the archive in remembering and making accessible the life and work of this person. There are others in the archive who were not so famous, whose lives are also commemorated, which is beautiful to me, evidence of everyday revolutions happening over and over again (and there are artefacts from more famous people too, there's a pair of Harvey Milk's jeans in a box there somewhere). It reminded me that activism is often about very small interventions which may seem like a drop in the ocean at times. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. But archives show that these small actions – the queer wearing of an insanely glittery outfit, for example – have wider significance over time, especially if they are part of a consistent body of work. I love the way that the archive creates a dialogue between the past and the future. So I felt moved by Sylvester's costumes, and the research materials I've been working on, they encourage me to continue my own work and to encourage others to do theirs.

Oh yes, and some of the outfits were roomy and large, big enough for me, though others were smaller, the pyjama trousers in particular had a small waist. Sylvester was pretty tall, so I'm imagining someone who was of relative normative size, but bigger than most.

I want to end this by saying that last night I went to the great Michelle Tea's reading series at the San Francisco Public Library. Entitled 'Old School: Writers Unearth and Re-imagine the Lives and Legacies of Queers Gone By,' writers presented work inspired by the GLBT Historical Society's holdings. Robin Coste Lewis presented a magnificent piece about many things, but also about Sylvester. She talked about people whose histories are not commemorated, including the slaves who were her ancestors, and included passages about Sylvester's archival legacy, which is shockingly patchy to say the least. But the costumes remain, and they speak. Mighty real (of course I had to say that).

Gamson, Joshua (2005) The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, The Music, The 70s in San Francisco. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

GLBT Historical Society

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