30 January 2012

Headless fatty: the visual cliché that will not die

My friend Substantia Jones recently shared a link to an interview with Cleo Berry in the New York Times: Imagine His Shock. His Leg Had Vanished. Berry is an actor who posed for some pictures a while back. To his astonishment his image has just turned up with one of his legs Photoshopped off in a health promotion campaign about diabetes.

It's not just the cropping out of a leg that makes this story significant. The advert is clearly part of a headless fatty tradition in advertising. I imagine Berry has been presented in this way because of anonymity, the business conditions under which Berry's image can be used and licensed, wanting to give the figure in the advert universal appeal. Yet headlessness produces a distancing rather than identification when viewers look at a picture of a headless fat person, and this campaign relies on stereotypes, which are also dehumanising. It presents the holy trinity of fat, consumption and disease in an image that is pure abjection and, I suspect, does more for fat-shaming than it does for health promotion. It hardly paints a generous picture of disability either. I haven't come across any commentary yet about the way that race, gender and class are also significant parts of the image.

New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene sidestepped the issue of representation in the New York Times article to say that the advert is purely about the impact of diabetes. They have little interest in engaging with how they use images of fat people. This is not very ethical, you'd think that an organisation invested in public health would care about this sort of thing. This response shows that the use of headless fatties is not restricted to the worst of the tabloid media, it's a damaging visual cliché used by public service organisations too.

The quote in the article from Howard Wolfson, about having disability represented by someone who is not disabled, is naïve, in my opinion. Disabled activists have long campaigned against having able-bodied people represent disabled people. Realness is important because it brings depth and humanity with it, and one of the reasons this image fails is because it lacks those things.

It's interesting to hear Berry talking about how the picture came to be, his attitude towards it, the depressing effects it might have on his career which, as a fat black actor looking for roles, is probably pretty tough as it is. He says a lot about fat and representation in a short interview, about money, power, the trade in images; his account is really rich.

I think that all fat people posing for photographs should try and be aware of how their images might be used, and make amendments to photo releases if they're concerned at all about being a future poster child for abjection. At the time the pictures were taken, Berry had no understanding of what it meant to have your image used for a stock photo company, or to sign a release agreeing that your image could be manipulated. I'm grateful that he's spoken up about what it's like to be depicted in this way. It reminds me of how powerful it is when people have opportunities to refuse dehumanisation, how speaking up can expose the systemic and seemingly overwhelming ways in which people are silenced. I wish that could happen more often.

23 January 2012

Fat lesbian feminists share archive recordings

Meridith Lawrence and Judith Stein
Last year I had the great good fortune to spend a bit of time with Judith Stein and Meridith Lawrence at their beautiful home in Massachusetts.

Stein and Lawrence are partners who pioneered fat activism in and around Boston in the early 1980s through support groups and gatherings called, variously, Boston Fat Liberation, Boston Area Fat Liberation, Boston Area Fat Feminist Liberation, and Boston Area Fat Lesbians. Stein was responsible for a slew of publications about fat, lesbian feminism and Jewish identity, and her New Haggadah is included in the collection at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. She was also instrumental in politicising the Boston Women's Health Book Collective around fat, which led to the inclusion of fat feminism in Our Bodies Ourselves. Stein introduced many dykes to fat feminism through their presence at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, and through collaborations with other fat activists in the US.

During my visit, the pair shared with me recordings of a couple of radio shows they made with other contributors in 1984 and 1985 called 'Plain Talk About Fat' and '30 Big Minutes With Fat Liberation' respectively. These shows were produced for International Women's Day by a radio station at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Stein and Lawrence permitted me to make digital versions of the show for people to download and listen to.

Plain Talk About Fat - 1984 (.mp3 9.3mb)

30 Big Minutes With Fat Liberation - 1985 (.mp3 13mb)

I don't know about you but I find these shows beautiful, moving, funny, right-on, and a sheer pleasure to listen to. The team's creative use of radio is gorgeous, I like the non-professional nature of it, it feels very proto-DIY culture, the rough edges are what makes these recordings so special, and the lively atmosphere is delightfully contagious.

I think many fat activists today are alienated from historical fat activisms, especially pieces of work that were produced by radical lesbian feminists, and which formed the backbone of the movement for years. These recordings give a great idea of what fat feminist culture sounded like at the time, and offer hints about the forms that fat activist cultural production might take.

I'm very grateful to the lesbian feminists, many of whom were also Jewish, who helped develop and shape fat activism in its earlier incarnations. I offer deep gratitude too to Stein and Lawrence, not just for their hospitality towards me, but also for helping to build a movement that has had such a great influence on my life.

Selected publications

Stein, J. (1981) 'Fat Liberation: No Losers Here', Sojourner, 6:9, 8.

Stein, J., Sears, R., Mitchell, P., Newmark, R. & Purnell, J. (1981) 'The Political History of Fat Liberation: An Interview', The Second Wave, 3: 32-37.

Stein, J. (1982) Telling Bobbeh Meisehs: Notes on Identity and the Creation of Jewish Lesbian Culture, Cambridge, MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press.

Stein, J. (1983) 'On Getting Strong: Notes From a Fat Woman, in Two Parts', in: Schoenfielder, L. & Wieser, B. (eds.) Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression. Iowa City: Aunt Lute, 106-110.

Stein, J. (1984) A New Haggadah: A Jewish Lesbian Seder. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press.

Stein, J. (1986). Get Your Foot Off My Neck: Fat Liberation. Gay Community News, 28 June 1986.

Stein, J. (1997) 'Making A Big Splash: The Pleasures of Water Aerobics' [Online]. Berkeley, CA: Radiance. Available: http://www.radiancemagazine.com/issues/1997/spring97_jstein.html [Accessed 23 January 2012].

Creative Commons LicensePlain Talk About Fat and 30 Big Minutes With Fat Liberation by Judith Stein, Meridith Lawrence et al is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://obesitytimebomb.blogspot.com. This means you can share these recordings as long as you credit them, but you can't change them or profit from them. If you want to talk about licencing issues, contact Charlotte Cooper at this blog and she will put you in touch with the people who made the original recordings.

Thanks to Simon Murphy for help with digitising the audio.

20 January 2012

Introducing Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society

I'm absolutely delighted to announce that the first edition of Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society has been published. I am a member of the editorial board for this journal, and my article about queering fat activism through my Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline project is published in the first issue.

Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society is, in academic-speak, a peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal. Peer-review is the gold standard of academic publishing, it means that each article has been through a rigorous process of review by other people who work in the field so that it represents high quality work, basically the cutting edge.

Unfortunately, like most academic journals, you can't go and buy this at a shop. It's available to students and scholars through academic and major libraries, part of a wider process of keeping ideas away from the plebs, or at least away from people who can't afford tuition fees. Non-students can buy articles or issues, but it can be pricey. If you want to read this journal and can't get access, drop me a line and I'll do my best to help.

Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society is not the first journal to explore more radical views of fatness. Let's not forget the important work by Frances Berg and the Healthy Weight Journal, and later Jon Robison with Health At Every Size. But what Fat Studies does is shift critical and scholarly discussions of fatness out of health or 'Obesity Epidemic' and into a much broader arena where things like culture, community, rights, embodiment can be addressed. This new publication is an important moment in developing ideas about what it is to be fat and, unlike the odd conference or course, it's ongoing and international.

Let's hear loud applause for Esther Rothblum, the journal's editor, and also the co-editor of The Fat Studies Reader. Her commitment to generating new dialogue about fatness is second-to-none. If you're not excited about this journal then you probably don't even know you're born!

12 January 2012

How body activism marginalises fat people

The YMCA is campaigning on behalf of 'body confidence' in the UK and is supporting a number of meetings of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, which started in November and will continue through to the end of February. These meetings are open to the public and involve expert testimony from representatives of academia, mental health, youth and education services, media, fitness, fashion, health and cosmetic surgery industries.

Those not able to attend are invited to give written evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image via an online survey. I submitted my response to this yesterday and encourage others to do the same.

I support this campaign in vague and general terms, I'd rather it existed than not, but I have many misgivings about it. I'm offering this critique not because I think this work should go away, but because it could and should be very much stronger and more emancipatory. Here's a brief explanation of why I'm wary:

There will be no discussion with health professionals or representatives from the National Health Service other than psychiatrists and psychologists. The hectoring use of BMI charts, plans to encourage everyone from chiropodists to pharmacists to 'helpfully' enquire about your diet and exercise every time you pick up some medicine or get your bunions seen to, and the public-private partnerships being set up between the NHS and weight loss companies would suggest that this is a significant area that affects people's embodied self esteem.

I'm assuming that this group has been omitted because they don't represent the more faddish side of weight loss, but this sets up a false distinction between good and bad weight loss; some doctors advocate very low calorie diets for fat people, for example. The campaign's website talks about problematic 'quick fixes' for body image anxiety, including cosmetic surgery, steroids, and fad diets, but it does not attack weight loss in general as something that is likely to screw up your sense of body image. This echoes a previous attempt to use the British government to support an anti-diet agenda, which was tabled by Mary Evans Young in the early 1990s with the support of Alice Mahon MP. In that instance diets were attacked as detrimental to people's health and wellbeing, but weight loss was deemed acceptable for 'the obese'. Presumably dieting or poor body image is only a problem if you are normatively-sized, everyone else is fair game.

There's no mention in the campaign of alternative paradigms that are already well-established, including fat activism and Health At Every Size. No representatives of these models have been invited to speak, it is as though they don't exist when actually there's a wealth of material and expertise and experience to draw on. The lack of connection to a wider context for this sort of work makes the campaign appear superficial, ahistorical and self-aggrandising to me.

Similarly, the role of dominant ideologies are omitted. Capitalism and neoliberalism are prime reasons why so many of us do not feel at home in our bodies. Racism and oppression in general have a massive part to play in it too. Fatphobia is at the heart of why kids are measured and dieted before they've learned to tie their shoelaces. Governmentality and medicalisation are surely implicated. The broader picture is not being addressed in this campaign, instead there is a pathetic insistence that the red herrings of 'celebrity culture' or 'the media' (which is never defined, and around which we all become passive dupes rather than active consumers or producers, or involved in any other relationship to it - and yes, the bombarded by images cliché is invoked) are the problem.

The online survey through which stakeholders are invited to give written evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image is poorly designed and full of leading questions, sometimes you only get a line to answer a fantastically complicated question, for example, which hints at the campaign's lack of understanding of the issues involved. The language and assumptions behind some of the questions is fatphobic, for example "What are the links, if any, between obesity, eating disorders and poor body image?" implies that the three concepts are more than likely linked and stems from a particular popular discourse of fat as a product of compulsive eating, an immature coping mechanism. Because it's a government platform, and this particular government is all about a neoliberal reduction of state funding, there are many questions about the economic impact of negative body image, which can get quite wearing, as if that's the only kind of impact that matters.

The YMCA is synonymous with gym culture, are they really the best organisation to advise on developing stronger strategies around health and self-image? Gok Wan endorses the campaign, truly a turn-off for me given his own weight maintenance regime. The YMCA's interest in the campaign is to "reduce body image as a barrier to participation" which suggests that they are looking at a business case as a rationale for this work. But I don't want good body image to be a means of transforming me into a more eager consumer of gym memberships, that's not why I do the work I do, my activism is anti-capitalist! Likewise, although I see fat activism as a broad endeavour where many kinds of activities can be sustained, including All Party Parliamentary Groups, I am an anarchist and government lobbying is not my preferred location for social change.

And what does body image mean anyway? The campaign's website defines it as "our idea of how our body looks and is perceived by others" but this is so vague, faux-apolitical and unrooted as to be meaningless.

Finally, you know what? There's not a single fat person in the promotional imagery. Bah.