28 January 2010

Revisiting The Fat Dykes Statement

I spent a bit of time at 56a Infoshop a few weeks ago, checking out the queer zine collection and looking for fat stuff. 56a is one of a handful of autonomous spaces in London, and it deserves your support.

I was really delighted to come across Heather Smith's account of the 1989 Fat Women's conference in London. This is an event of mythical significance to me! I didn't go to it but I heard a lot about it over the years and it's one of the things that propelled me into fat stuff myself.

Heather's account is really powerful, check out this random quote: "My opening speech located fat within a framework of imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy" (p.38, full reference below). Wow! It's easy to write off a lot of second wave feminism, I do this myself because of the many problems within the women's movement of that time, but I also think that this statement is incendiary, prophetic and miles ahead of anyone else. I think people in Fat Studies are only beginning to catch up. Heather Smith, where are you now? Please get in touch.

The Fat Dykes Statement was produced at the conference, and reproduced afterwards. I saw it in Trouble + Strife at the time, and maybe elsewhere. The statement was developed in a workshop facilitated by Sheree Bell and Kathy Hall, though there was an earlier lesbian workshop at the conference facilitated by Heather Smith and Tina Jenkins too, perhaps there was some crossover?

It's nearly the start of LGBT History Month here in the UK, so with this in mind I thought I'd reproduce the statement here for your delectation. Although parts of the statement are dated, (clothing choices were more limited in 1989 but I don't know if anyone cares about crimplene any more, and it's likely that drinking diet pop is less of a hot topic than it used to be), it is still a brilliant, complex and accessible analysis of fat hatred and homophobia. It shows so simply that the social positioning of fat people, including fat dykes, is more than a discourse of health, food or bodily control.

I also like the haughty tone, it would be easy to lampoon, perhaps as humourless. But I think there is humour there, as well as anger, and the tone articulates a pride in queer fatness that is quite rare today, and completely fierce. Thanks Fat Dykes, for producing this list, and for giving me chills two decades on.

The Fat Dykes Statement

Don't assume... I don't like my body
Don't assume… I think your body is better than mine
Don't assume… you're doing me a favour by having a relationship with me
Don't assume… I'm your earth mother/diesel dyke
Don't assume… I'm a failed heterosexual
Don't assume… I'm always happy/jolly
Don't assume… I'm not sexual
Don't assume… I'm single
Don't assume… I'm unfit/unhealthy
Don't assume… I'm crazy/stupid
Don't assume… I want to lose weight
Don't assume… I want to talk about slimming
Don't assume… I eat more than you do
Don't assume… I don't want to dance
Don't assume… you don't fancy me
Don't assume… you're not frightened of me
Don't assume… I'm out of control
Don't assume… you look better than me because you're thinner
Don't assume… your body won't change
Don't assume… there is a choice/that I would be thin if I could
Don't assume… I ought to wear black, navy, brown
Don't assume… I want to wear crimplene
Don't assume… you're not responsible for my fat oppression
Don't assume… I want a Diet Coke
Don't assume… I want chemicals instead of calories
Don't assume… I eat all day long
Don't assume… that where you go will be accessible to me
Don't assume… my fat has psychological roots
Don't assume….....

Smith, Heather (1989) 'Creating a Politics of Appearance' Trouble + Strife, 16, Summer, 36-41.


Unknown said...

That's an amazing list. I want that on a t-shirt.

Jackie said...

That is amazing! Thanks so much for sharing Charlotte--I love this list.

Buffpuff said...

I was there too, Charlotte! And I well remember this statement being read out. It still makes me smile and righteously nod my head. Bizarrely the Diet Coke debate is still had in some circles. (Me, I drink both kinds but it still grates my cheese when the waiter inevitably hands me the Diet Coke, assuming that my (equally fat) male dining companion couldn't possibly have ordered it on account of not being female).

When I attended the conference I had such high hopes it would really change public opinion and kickstart a fat acceptance movement in the UK. However, despite the massive amount of mainstream press it got, everything fizzled out very quickly.

The bulk of the Fat Dyke's Statement actually applies to any fat person as very little of it is lesbian (or even gender) specific. However I seem to remember notions afoot to create lots of separate communities - in addition to Fat Dykes there had to be a group for Fat Jews, Fat Black Women, Fat Disabled Women, etc. Then, as now, while I think each of these groups has a unique perspective, ultimately I think the creation of microcosms like this dilute the movement as a whole. It certainly didn't achieve anything back then.

One of the other things I witnessed at the conference was larger fat women showing incredible hostility to smaller fat women yonks before the phrase Oppression Olympics was even coined. One woman was reduced to tears justifying her perfect right to be there. She was a size 22 and a wheelchair user and she was made to feel like shit about herself by women who were supposed to be her allies and equals. She might as well have been entering a mainstream beauty contest for all the fun she was having and liberation she was feeling. It left a very bad taste in my mouth.

I'd be fascinated to read Heather Smith's account. Might you consider putting it up on line?

Anonymous said...

Powerful stuff. Heather should publish it as a poster or a t-shirt.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Buffpuff: thanks for this. It's heartbreaking to hear that some people's experiences were so tough. The divisions are awful to hear about. I don't know why it had to be like that.

I suspect the energy from the conference petered out because people got burned out pretty quickly, I think there was some in-fighting too. It's a shame.

I don't hold the copyright to Heather's account, so i won't be putting it online. You'll have to look it up at a library or an archive if you want to see it.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Fatadelic, I don't know where Heather Smith is. She is not the originator of this statement, it was the work of a group, though I imagine she was involed.

Perhaps you could put it on a t-shirt instead of waiting for someone else who isn't here to do it for you!

Unknown said...

Hi Charlotte and Bloggers,
I ran that Fat Dykes workshop with Kathy and was part of the planning committee for the event. The production of the Fat Dykes statement was the work of the 'Lesbian workshop' group and had been preceeded by discussion about fattist attitudes in the lesbian community. I agree it could apply to all groups of women but its inspiration was the lesbian discussion. We started with the 'Don't assume' premise and then I wrote up everyone's comments as they arose. I can still remember the delight in the room with some of the comments (don't assume you don't fancy me!) and the silent understanding of shared experience with others. It was a great workshop!
Buff puff is right in saying that within the participants that day there was some antagonism - almost a hierachy of fat acceptance - and that was sad. As organisers we had to take some responsibility for that because we left the 'criteria for attendance' as self determining so when people who were size 14 turned up there it inflamed emotions. Of course for the people who were size 14 and thought they were fat, they felt they should be there and would benefit from the experience but the size 14 experience of life in a fat hating society would be so far from the size 28 experience of the world that tensions arose.
Chuntering on here, but they are fond and profound memories indeed.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Hiya and thanks for your comments. Thanks also for helping to produce such a powerful piece of work. It endures!

I'm sorry that there were tensions on the day, though I think it's totally understandable that this would happen, a lot of baggage was brought to the space, possibly the only space until then that people had had to discuss this stuff. No wonder there were explosions. I still think of the conference as a fantastic event, historically important, complete with its difficult parts.

TB said...

CC, have you seen the Fat Dykes Statement as it was published as (part of) a zine or pamphlet? It's in the Hall Carpenter Archives at LSE. I remember it being handwritten/totally DIY in its presentation. It may be the same as what you've seen already but just wanted to alert you that this possibly 'original' version exists. Looking on the catalogue now I can't find a reference however...

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Ooh, I'd love to see that! I should make some time to go to the archive and see what they've got.

I was looking at Sue Dyson's book at the Women's Library last week. She provides an account of the London '89 conference, and reproduces parts of the Fat Dykes Statement but manages to erase any mention of lesbians. Apparently there were no dykes there at all. How very strange.

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

Rowan Dykewood said...

I was at the conference too. the lesbian space had been set up with fifteen chairs and there were sixty of us! It was wonderful.
Some think it changed nothing but it did:] My self confidence was very low and the event changed that forever. It was one of the great turning points of my life, changed my world and i have been empowered to challenge fat oppression where ever i find it ever since.
We should do it again.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Rowan.

A conference would be amazing.