22 July 2011

Llewellyn Louderback, More People Should Be FAT, November 1967

In 1967 Llewellyn Louderback published an article in The Saturday Evening Post called 'More people should be FAT'. This was one of the first, if not the first, pieces of critical writing about fat in the popular media in the US. The article was read by Bill Fabrey, who contacted Louderback, and it helped spawn NAAFA and everything that followed.

The article is pretty compelling several decades later, I think. He makes a good case for abandoning fatphobia within a context where such claims would have been seen as pure oddball territory. It's pre-feminist, Ann Louderback gets mentioned but does not have a voice of her own in the piece. Given the influence of feminism on fat activism, it's strange to see its earlier focus on men. I like Lew's lively prose and would direct readers not only to his book Fat Power but also to his genre novels, which he wrote for a living, especially the lurid Operation Moon Rocket.

Louderback is still around, though sadly Ann died some years ago. I had the pleasure of meeting him in 2009, and we correspond from time to time.

The article is predictably obscure but, by magic, I have a copy of it. Here it is, hot off the scanner.

Louderback, L. (1967). More People Should Be FAT. Saturday Evening Post. Philadelphia, PA: The Curtis Publishing Company. November 4, issue 22. 10-12.

Louderback, L. [pseudonym Nick Carter]. (1968) Operation Moon Rocket, London: Tandem.

Louderback, L. (1970) Fat Power, New York: Hawthorn Books.

14 July 2011

Reflecting on East Asian fat cuteness

When I was a kid I lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years as part of what I have come to understand as a weird experiment in class and colonialism. I'll explain that in more depth in Chapter Three of my memoirs, whenever I come to write them, but for now I just want to say that Hong Kong in 1976 was when I first encountered Hello Kitty and, to a seven year old girl, that stuff was like crack. I've never been able to shake the habit and as a middle-aged woman I still go gaga for hyper-cute Asian graphics. I've been lucky enough to spend time in Japan in recent years, where I have pawed and prodded my way through the country's top stationery departments.

In London, where I live, Artbox is where I go for a fix. I was there yesterday, hyperventilating greedily over pencil-cases and plastic key covers. I bought this notebook. The cover has the picture of a rabbit or a bear with fat cheeks. The text says: "Fatty Animals: I do not mind fatty!!" and on the back there are more pictures of the fat rabbit eating a biscuit, a fat bear sitting and puffing, and more text: "We like to eat and hate to move. We are fatty animals". The paper inside the notebook is unadorned.

I did a little bit of peeping and checking this afternoon. Mind Wave sells character-based stationery and cute stuff in Japan and look like the originators of Fatty Animals. If they have Fatty Animals on their site, my Japanese is not good enough to find it, but there are other websites featuring Fatty Animals products, like pencils and pencil-cases, and other notebook styles.

I was so interested to see this stuff because I think it demonstrates a popular resistance to dominant obesity discourse in Japan, a place where Western fat activists might assume there is none, and where people in the West commonly assume there are no fat people. The reiteration of fat as being caused by eating biscuits ane being lazy is problematic, but the line: "I do not mind fatty!!" is pretty amazing, I think, as both tolerance and celebration of fatness. It ties in neatly with Fat Studies work about obesity rhetoric and pets (Cooper, 1997, Kulick, 2009). I like the way that this form of engagement with obesity discourse has travelled and messes with neat assumptions about who is making fat culture, where and how. What can I say? It's excellent to see this playing out through the medium of anthropomorphic animals and cute stationery.

Cooper, C. (1997) 'Would You Put Your Best Friend on a Diet?'. Yes! London. 4:23 June/July. 14-15.

Kulick, D. (2009) 'Fat Pets', in: Tomrley, C. & Kaloski Naylor, A. (eds.) Fat Studies in the UK. York: Raw Nerve Books, 35-50.

11 July 2011

NOLOSE and trans inclusion

NOLOSE has just announced a change in policy that feels very daring, radical and exciting in the context of how identity politics have shaped fat activism.

The policy change statement sets out who will now be welcome at NOLOSE, sets down a challenge to identity as an organising principle, and questions the notion of safe space. This last aspect is reminiscent of Queerfestival Copenhagen's No safer spaces this year, which itself may also be part of a new trend in queer organising.

How the change in policy will work in concrete terms is anybody's guess. I think there are people who will struggle and I hope that they find a way of coming to terms with these new developments. I feel very positive about the policy change, I think it's realistically considered in terms of gender and 'safety', and I like how it advocates for more multiple and intersectional fat activisms. It demonstrates shifts in genealogies of fat activism that has roots in radical lesbian feminism and shows that the work based in these histories, locations, and politics are thriving and evolving, they are really alive. Congratulations to NOLOSE for making the leap.

Here's the text of the policy change in full:

NOLOSE Policy Change: Inclusion and Moving from Identity to Intention
July 8, 2011

Gender and Who 'We' Are

NOLOSE is a volunteer-run organisation dedicated to ending the oppression of fat people and creating vibrant fat queer culture. That's been our mission since the early '90s. Since that time, our community has been defined by who 'we' are (by nature, an evolving definition).

NOLOSE started out as the National Organisation for Lesbians of SizE, firmly fixed in identity politics, as a community of fat dykes and bisexual women. As the years passed and the organisation grew, we changed our policy to include not only a broader community of queer women—dykes, lesbians and bisexual women, including trans women—but also transgender people overall. This was partially in response to the evolving gender identities of people already in our community who were marginalised under the old policy.

Since then, NOLOSE and the annual NOLOSE Conference have been explicitly trans-inclusive, inviting all fat queer women (regardless of assigned sex or gender at birth), and all fat trans and gender-variant folks and our allies of all sexual orientations, with the specific exclusion of cisgender men (men who were assigned male at birth and identify that way now).

In the years since making this change, we've become aware that the altered policy continues to marginalise transgender people by requiring that they negate parts of their identities in order to be welcomed into the conference. For example, at this time trans men who attend can do so on the basis of having been formerly identified or socialised as female, but not on the basis of being men. At best, they can attend on the basis of being trans-men, which assumes a natural divide between cisgender men and trans men. This division can be dehumanising.

While trans men are welcomed regardless of the degree to which they have undergone hormone treatment or gender confirmation surgeries, we understand that the current gender policy may not feel as welcoming to trans women who have either not yet undergone hormone treatment and surgical transition, cannot afford to, or choose not to. While our previous policies seemed to make sense for the organisation at the time, NOLOSE does not wish to police the bodies, gender identities and gender expressions of our community. Instead, we'd like create a place that welcomes people on the basis of their desire to help build fat-positive and anti-oppressive community.

Challenging Identity as a Focus

Identity politics have their use and appeal, but they've also been constricting for us and many social justice movements. Because we defined our conference as being for and by a particular group, we opened thorny questions about legitimacy, and who had the right to be present and heard. Had we not begun to challenge that definition, we would likely have had to deal with border disputes between people arguing about 'how much' of some identity one must have in order to belong. This is a common challenge in groups and movements organising for change around identity.

There are also complexities regarding representation—if we're all in the same identity category, questions will invariably arise regarding what we say we want and how we should represent ourselves—often centred on the experience of assimilation/anti-assimilation. This can easily become a politics of shame, wherein those least able or least wanting to assimilate to some normative category get left behind. This perpetuates oppression and exclusion, drawing lines through the bodies of people.

We think there's a better way for us. Rather than trying to agree about 'who we are,' we want to come together around what is desired – what kind of ethics/politics we hold, and what kind of world we want to create. In the process, we remain cognisant of the fact that because we are differently impacted by relations of oppression and privilege, we also have different imperatives and investments in making change. Rather than try to bang out an ironclad code of conduct for what that means, we ask that everyone come willing to do the necessarily messy work of trying to figure out how to do anti-oppression politics and bring about social change and justice.

Because previous definitions of who belongs and who doesn't haven't worked for us, and because we believe that our NOLOSE community is shaped by the consciousness, ideological intent, and action of our participants rather than by identity, we've decided to change the criteria for conference attendance from an identity-based one to one that's ideologically-based. This means that anyone aiming to help create a queer, fat positive, anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-ageist, anti-classist, anti-colonialist, feminist space will be welcome at NOLOSE. In effect, this means that all people interested in building fat-positive, queer, anti-oppressive community, including cisgender men, will be welcome at NOLOSE. Nobody will be excluded on the basis of identity. This change will be implemented by the time of our next conference.

It's been a long process that brought us to this decision. We began by having several in-person discussions more than a year ago, then created a forum (held at the 2010 conference) that helped us, as a community, identify people's hopes and fears regarding opening the conference up to cisgender men. That input was the basis of several discussions to follow, including a consultation with LGBT social worker Katy Bishop (a counsellor with expertise in helping communities navigate issues of inclusion and exclusion). It was in a meeting facilitated by Katy that we outlined this new policy.

Challenging the Concept of Safety

One concern in regards to this policy that we want to specifically address is the fear of losing of what's long been called 'safe space.' This conference has often been more comfortable for white people, those with temporary physical ability, and mid-size folks, while others of us have had to field assumptions and been forced to educate those with more privilege in order to keep from becoming invisible. This isn't our idea of safety.

While we respect people's yearning for spaces that feel secure, we want to recognise that there is a distinction between being 'safe' and being 'comfortable.' In our policy considerations, we define 'safe space' as space free from physical, verbal, and emotional violence; 'comfort,' by contrast, often has more to do with lack of challenge around our preconceived beliefs, and may also be informed by individual privilege. In that sense, discomfort can be what allows us to challenge oppression and build more inclusive community. We challenge the idea that truly comfortable space is possible or even desirable.

We want a conference that lives up to social justice principles in regards to anti-violence, body size and ability, race and ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, and class background. We want it to be a space that's less 'comfortable' and more radical and conscious about the kind of world we all want to live in and work toward. This means sharing space that may be challenging for all of us, and in which we're accountable to each other in order to meet those challenges with compassion and strength. This means taking risks, asking questions, being willing to learn and listen, and being responsible for our own learning as well.

Moving Forward Together

We want your input on how to actualise this policy. We, the board of NOLOSE, welcome suggestions and input from you all on how to make this policy and focus change work. Since all board members are working throughout the whole conference, our availability is limited, but you may be able to check in if you want to speak one-on-one with one of us. We will also be available from 12:00-1:00 on Saturday at lunch (at a specified table, TBD), and during the Saturday 3pm workshop slot in the 'Pig' room for community members to gather and discuss the policy change with members of the NOLOSE Board of Directors. We encourage you to add your ideas, concerns, and questions to our suggestion box located at the registration table. We'll also be asking for your input on our evaluation form at the end of the conference, so be on the lookout for that.

Here's what we would especially like to hear about:
  • Suggestions for things to include in the conference mission.
  • What do you, as a community member, need to help you through this policy and focus transition?
  • Are there structural ways that the conference can respond to your needs in regards to the new policy?
We welcome you to join in this space with us. It's an ongoing adventure that'll bring its own perils, wisdom, and love with it. Thanks for sharing it with us.

The NOLOSE Board of Directors

Tara Shuai, Co-President
Galadriel Mozee, Co-President
Kim Paulus, Vice President
Rachel, Treasurer
Geleni Fontaine, Secretary
Abby Weintraub
Jen Herrington

01 July 2011

Fat lesbian feminist activism flyer from the archive

I was given a copy of a flyer for an exhibition by Zoe Mosko that took place in 1982. I love the text on the flyer, which shows how rich the fat dyke scene was in the Bay Area in the 1980s, and the centrality of cultural production to fat activism. But the best thing is obviously the image, what a winner! Don't those women look fantastic? The outfits and the eye contact! Wowie! I'm going to cover a hat with some badges now.

Fat lib consciousness raising in the archive

Dianne Rubinstein wrote a Fat Consciousness Raising Outline in 1981 and, I believe, circulated it via NAAFA. In the guide, Rubinstein offers a rationale for consciousness raising, which was one of the key organising and politicising methods of Western feminism from the 1960s to the early 1980s, broadly speaking. She offers a format for going about fat consciousness raising, which includes lists of questions and instructions on how to listen and respond. I've never been a part of a consciousness raising group, I'm a bit too young for that, so it is fascinating to see its process spelled out in such detail.

I was interested in the last set of questions Rubinstein asks, titled The Liberated Fat Person. Firstly, the language jumped out at me, especially the use of the definite article, and the past tense for 'Liberated' which imply that liberation is a fixed state that can be attained, maybe an ideal state. This contrasts current alternative thinking about fat activism or fat acceptance which is that they are ongoing, open.

Secondly, the list of questions offers an idea of what fat liberation looked like at that point in time, within a US context of feminism and rights-based organising. Some of these ideas endure, suggesting the slow moving ideology of fat politics. Again, the concepts are fairly fixed, there's not much room for ambiguity, the use of 'our' and the undefined categorisation of people as fat and thin are problematic. The language of 'Fat Liberation', presumably rooted in Women's Liberation, looks very dated now, and has been largely taken over by the term 'fat acceptance' or 'size acceptance' which I think are politically much weaker, or 'fat activism', which often implies something else.

Thirdly, it strikes me how rare it still is to come across work which is written from the standpoint of a fat libber, or fat activist. I'm talking about work which directly references these concepts and which illustrates the values and worldviews of people engaged with these pursuits.

Lastly, I like that the questions might elicit different responses over time and place. It might be fun to have a consciousness raising session in 2011, to have a go at answering them together.

The Liberated Fat Person

1. What strengths do fat people have?
2. What is a liberated fat person?
3. What are some of the problems/pressures of the liberated fat person?
4. What is the best way to deal with a fat person who is antagonistic to the fat liberation movement?
5. How do you deal with a thin person who is antagonistic to the fat liberation movement?
6. Can a fat person with 'a raised consciousness' still relate to thin people?
7. What is equality? Is that our goal?
8. What are the goals of the fat liberation movement?
9. What are the goals of your group?
10. Is c/r a political action? Is it enough?
11. What is 'closet fat'? To what extent are you?
12. What is 'closet f.a.'?
13. What have you gotten from this group? Is it what you expected?

Rubinstein, D. (1981). Fat Consciousness Raising Outline. Bellerose, NY: NAAFA.

A vile encounter with comedy fatphobia

I was at Rotterdam The Hague Airport yesterday. Part of the checking-in area was being used to film a comedy show that's going to be broadcast on RTL Nederland in August. I didn't have my wits about me to catch the name of the show, but I watched the filming for a few minutes before I went through to the departure lounge.

The main character was a guy with unruly ginger hair dressed in a sort of a shell-suit, like a chav stereotype. At first I couldn't work out why his face looked so puffy and weird, and then I saw the plastic belly poking out from under his clothes and I realised he was wearing a fat suit. As I watched him act, his comedy character seemed to be modelled on someone with a learning disability.

I have no idea about the context for this character, whether or not this is a popular programme, what it's about. Maybe someone else reading this knows and can fill me in. What struck me was the casual way in which stereotypes are manufactured, and about who is invested in their creation. There were about 15 people making the programme, including producers, actors, technicians, and no doubt the airport was getting a location fee, all very workaday. And yet here is a character in a fat suit, complete with various other underclass signifiers, being presented as stupid and pathetic, the butt of the joke. Why do this?

I tried to take some pictures of the guy in the fat suit but, strangely enough, he wasn't keen. This is the best I could do, he's the one in the middle, you can just about see his plastic strap-on belly poking out of his clothes.