25 November 2011

Talking about fat and sexual harassment

Twice in the past few weeks I've been grabbed in the street by strangers. The first stranger grabbed my arm and whispered "Ohh, big girl" at me as though he was sharing a sexy secret. The second, last night crept up behind me and as he walked past brushed his dick against my hand, grabbed my waist and said "Hello gorgeous" quietly in my ear and walked away. Apart from these incidents it's been a while since I've noticed anyone harassing me when I'm out and about, I felt that I could walk down the street like anyone else.

In both cases I pulled myself away and told the strangers to fuck off. Nobody is allowed to touch me without my consent, it's a relief that I know this deeply. But I've also found myself following a disturbing line of thought: how have I attracted this attention? Is it my clothes? Something about how I walk? Why is it happening now? What have I done? It's depressing how easily I fall into the belief that I must be responsible for someone's unwanted intrusion.

I am a catch. There are good reasons why someone's head might turn to look at me. This knowledge has been hard fought for over decades, and continues to be a battleground of sorts, and maybe always will be. I am also an ordinary-looking dyke in my mid-40s. Neither my beauty nor my everydayness makes me safe. I find it grotesque when men grab me in the street when I am going about my business and not hooking them for attention, there's a disturbing mismatch between how I am and how they misread me. It feels as though they have picked me out and are trying to put me in my place by forcing me to see myself on their ugly terms. It reminds me of the ways in which my sexuality was treated as a joke in the past because I am fat and, although this is different, I find it humiliating. A fat dyke being sexually harassed, it almost feels like a joke in itself, who would anyone bother with me? How can it even be real? I must be secretly flattered and titilated that men still want me, that anyone is remotely interested.

Other people have written about the visibility and invisibility of fat people in public spaces, and it's no secret that street harassment is a daily reality. I think an understanding that harassment can be sexual tends to be missing. There are things to be said about the sexual harassment of fat people and, in my case and others, the interplay of gender, homophobia, racism, disableism and other types of oppressive behaviour on that harassment.

I would like more fat people to break the silence around this stuff, if they feel able to, and for people to develop stronger ways of addressing it. Whilst they don't ruin my day, these brief impositions upon me nevertheless raise many difficult feelings about fat, sexuality, being out on the streets, and claiming my space in the world.

24 November 2011

Stereotyping fat and capitalism

I went down to St Paul's last week to visit Occupy London. There are places where my politics and the general politics of Occupy diverge, but I'm glad it's there, hope it continues, and felt happy, inspired and moved by it.

One of my favourite things about Occupy London is the way that the street has been appropriated as a giant noticeboard. Pictures, letters, rants, conspiracy theories, stickers, were all taped up on the pillars at the side of the encampment. I enjoyed browsing, there was such a muddle of compelling stuff. Amongst everything were some posters advertising a new film, and a leaflet about the scummy business of carbon trading. Can you guess what drew me to them? Yes, that's right: their use of fat capitalist stereotyping.

I have written elsewhere about how the left has failed fat people, progressive, enlightened, anti-capitalist, pro-planet people and their fatphobia, and about political cartoonists' use of fatness to denote the greed and disgustingness of capitalism (alas top fatphobe cartoonist Martin Rowson never replied to my email about that). I'm becoming more and more interested in what I see as a contradiction: the left supports the underdog, yet fails to see fat people as oppressed, and instead reproduces us as visual stereotypes of the oppressors. Fat cat capitalist imagery is a travesty when you understand that the fattest social groups are also the poorest and most marginalised.

Similarly, I'm fascinated and annoyed at how fat activism is ignored, denied, belittled within apparently progressive leftist circles, even though it offers radical possibilities for understanding and challenging oppressive practices. This was brought home to me this week when my partner got an email from a vegan anarchist café in London declining her proposal for a regular fat crafternoon-type event on the grounds that they were concerned about promoting obesity within the context of a global obesity epidemic.

In both cases people on the radical left are failing to see fat, that is, they are failing to understand fat as something with which they should be politically engaged in a critical manner. Instead, they rely on lazy thinking and stereotyping, refusing to acknowledge the radical work by fat activists that is going on right in front of them.

11 November 2011

Media: how the Daily Mail reported Dawn French's weight loss

Putting aside the fact that it's a Tory hate-rag, The Daily Mail is such a contradiction when it comes to reporting fat, which they do a lot, although ironically I think it's still a better bet than the supposedly liberal Guardian, which is all fat hate all the time and even has its own diet club. On the one hand The Mail promoted the Big Bum Jumble by publishing almost word for word the press release I wrote to publicise the event without any problem at all. They've done some good reporting on LighterLife, whilst pruriently speculating about who has and who hasn't been on that diet. Same with weight loss surgery. They publish a lot of articles that appear to adopt a voice of concern about fatphobia but just end up reinforcing it. And of course they publish many reports that are just all-out full of fat hatred. There's no rhyme or reason to it and I suspect the tone is all down to whichever particular editor is on duty the day that the article is published. I suppose what it illustrates is the messy and inconsistent ways in which people think and talk about fat anyway; fat hatred is bad, but who on earth would want to be fat if they could help it?

Dawn French has been the focus of The Daily Mail's fat department this week. Her relationship with Lenny Henry ended and she's lost a lot of weight. Her publicity machine is saying that it's because she's found a new lease of life and is very happy, just eating "more healthily" whatever that means, and doing exercise. Anyone who buys this is living in fantasyland, French looks like she's undergone a sudden crash weight loss in the photographs of her gurning at an awards ceremony that appeared in the paper and, according to her memoir, this is something she's done before. Why or how will probably come out at some point but for now there she is, there's no way of knowing unless you are a close personal friend or have her phone tapped.

What makes French's weight loss interesting for someone like me is the way that The Daily Mail have reported it, they're both celebratory and disapproving. The pictures of French on the red carpet have run and run this week, alongside a catty 'letter from a frenemy' article by Anne Diamond, aka the lady Alan Partridge, that is almost beyond belief. Diamond, who has apparently made a very good career out of being an utter tool, berates French for pro-fat statements she's made, speculates that French's weight loss is a result of secret obesity surgery, and states that anyone who says they are fat and happy is deluded. I come across this expression all the time: 'fat and happy.' It's such a reductive means of explaining fat embodiment that is not based on self-hatred or wanting to change. "Are you fat and happy?" is a question that demands a negative answer because a positive one sounds unbelievable and trite. I doubt anyone is ever happy all the time in this flat kind of way that expresses nothing of the complexities of living fat. Anyway, it's always about fat and happy and French is a big fat hypocrite because she could not be fat and happy in the way that everyone needed her to be, and therefore nobody can ever be fat and happy.

The reporting of French's weight loss adds to the unreality of fat embodiment where, as a number of scholars have pointed out, Hannele Harjunen in particular, fat is a temporary blip in the present on the way towards a glorious thin future. The idea of someone being permanently fat is difficult for people to get their heads around, as is the idea of embodiment shifting from time to time for whatever reason. In a context where fat activism or fat politics are so far off most people's radar that they are positively laughable, I find this sense of unreality and its denial of fatness perturbing. I think it's difficult for fat people to feel secure in developing more positive identities as we are, especially for those of us who are isolated from one another. There's this deep sense that what fat activists are doing is ridiculous and will never work. People desperately want an alternative to fat hatred but they actively want fat activism or self-acceptance to fail too so that their own projects of self hatred can be justified. The rug is pulled out from under fat activism again and again.

I know people really love her but French's weight loss underscores for me the limitations in looking to celebrities for reassurance as role models. Fat celebrities who get thin is an old story. French's public persona is clearly far removed from what she does in private, her image is about the smoke and mirrors of publicity, it is not trustworthy. This too is unstable ground on which to pitch some kind of self-acceptance or fat politics. It's better to build on firmer terrain, wherever that may be.

09 November 2011

Revisiting Fat News

I've been looking at copies of Fat News. This is a newsletter that was produced by the second Fat Women's Group in London in the early 1990s. Both the newsletter and the second incarnation of the group were my idea, I think. The group caused me a lot of pain, I had no idea what I was doing and there were also tensions towards the end of my involvement that I still don’t understand. I ended up leaving, the group changed a bit and then, as far as I know, it stopped. Whilst it helps to think of burn-out and problems with group dynamics as common pitfalls of activism, these difficult memories have made it hard to reflect.

Fat News is the only tangible artefact I have of this period. 15 copies were published March 1993 – September 1996, though I don’t think I was involved with the last few. I remember seeing copies of Shocking Pink, which was this fantastic girl's zine produced in South London in the late 1980s, and loving how it was put together irreverently. I had no idea how I could have got involved in Shocking Pink, I think I probably thought that I wouldn’t be welcome there, I was so alienated from people at that time.

I stole some of Shocking Pink's production techniques for Fat News, which was that we would invite people to write content for it, and write some ourselves, and then everyone in the group would be responsible for cutting and pasting a page and decorating it with doodles and comments. Then someone would take it to the printer (we used the National Abortion Campaign's copier) and we'd get together to collate it and post it out to subscribers. Someone else in the group would be responsible for maintaining the subscriber's list and printing out address labels. I don’t think anyone else in the group had any involvement with small press, independent or zine publishing, and I remember it always took a lot of work encouraging people to draw or write on the pages they were pasting up.

I feel pretty sad when I look at Fat News but I'm sure other people don't feel the same way. We had some great feedback for it in the group, people loved it, and I remember how important it was to make something in which people who lived far away could participate. I remember recording audio versions of it too, it was exciting to be able to make accessible media.

The Women's Library in London have a partial set of Fat News, if you’re interested in British fat activism from twenty years ago – and why wouldn't you be?! Otherwise you can come over and have a look at my precious copies.

07 November 2011

Conference report: Eccentric bodies: beauty, normativity and representation 2011

I've just come back from a trip to Italy courtesy of Soggettiva, a queer festival held in Bologna. Part of the festival was a seminar called Corpi eccentrici: bellezza, normatività e rappresentazione (Eccentric bodies: beauty, normativity and representation), where I gave a presentation.

The seminar was held in the great hall of Santa Cristina, a place which was once a convent and now houses the city's Women's Library, amongst other things. There's a separate queer library at Il Cassero, where the organisation that convenes Soggettiva and its sister festival Gender Bender, are based. Both spaces are incredibly beautiful old buildings (that's Santa Cristina in the picture, swoon eh?). I was really happy to see my book, Fat and Proud, displayed at the entrance to Santa Cristina, and glad that the seminar was fully documented and will be archived.

I spoke about queer and trans feminist fat activism, gave a few examples of things people have done, and showed some pictures. I thought it might be a bit of a surprise to see this stuff if people had never considered fat as a political identity, or thought about fat people as people with agency, community or culture. My new friend Dani, who performed a synchronous translation of my presentation into Italian, told me that fat activism is difficult to translate. There are two words that people use to talk about fat: cicci, which is the type of term of endearment that you might use if you were calling someone chubby; and grasso, which implies a more disgusting fatness. I suggested she use grasso as a reclamation of language and a defiant celebration of the presumed monstrousness of fatness, and she ended up translating fat activism as attivisimo pro grasso. It felt pretty amazing to be creating language and concepts like this, to be doing so collaboratively and, I hope, sensitively.

Dani said that feminism is a bit of a sneaky presence in Italian academia, and that there isn't a tradition of institutional support for Women's Studies, for example, even at Bologna, which is the oldest university in the world. I got the feeling that this gathering was an unusual event. My co-speakers Giorgia Aiello, Elisa Arfini, Alessia Muroni and Roberta Sassatelli were more clued-in than me about the context of the seminar, which was to consider representation of queer bodies. Their presentations looked at corporate branding, photo agencies, soap operas, lesbian art, and advertising.

My presentation was different to the others, and I didn’t spell out the crucial connection to the seminar, which is that queer and trans fat feminist activists often make their own representations. I wanted to show the everyday embeddedness of activism, how accessible it can be, how almost everyone has some kind of resource they can draw on, and how fat activism disrupts the idea that activism is always about standing in the street with a placard, or speaking rationally to power. Whilst I appreciated my co-presenters' papers, and whilst some speakers also referred to the act of making one's own imagery, what the seminar raised for me was a deep tension between a body of feminist work that is concerned with interpreting popular images and finding it lacking, and my hunger for action beyond critique. Perhaps this is a feature of academic work that is cut off from the lifeblood of activism, I don't think it is an Italian feminist approach, I see it elsewhere too, but this event in Bologna reminded me of it. Put bluntly: it's important to understand why something is shit, but the work cannot stop there, there must be creative thinking and action and change; without these qualities the work descends into pointless hand-wringing and simply reproduces the helplessness of its subjects.

Despite these reservations I feel grateful to have taken part in this work, it was exciting to be talking about queer and trans fat feminist activism in a place where English is not the first language, where people might take on these ideas and mutate them in their own way, and to encounter the work that other people are doing.