25 May 2012

Fat activists I admire

I'm working hard trying to wind up my PhD. I spend most days grimacing at my computer for hours on end. There aren't many laughs round here at the moment.

A little bit of sweetness came my way last night, however. I was doing the washing-up from dinner and my girlfriend came in, she had been online and had seen a link to a new interview in which superstar of the universe Beth Ditto name-checked me as one of the fat activists she looks up to.

I get love mail from readers from time to time, it started when I published my first book in 1998 and it's never really stopped, so I know that there are people in the world who appreciate my work. I see my book in libraries, dog-eared, underlined, well-read. Because my life is not very glamorous or well-paid, and because I know and have known abuse, these little messages are a great boost. Coming from Beth, though, well, that's really excellent. I have met some of my heroes and they are generally disappointing, but Beth is in another league; she has heart, humanity and politics, she makes you want to dance, and she lights the way. To think that I do things that she respects is really exciting. Despite my current gloom and angst, I have allowed myself to crack a tiny, sneaky, proud smile.

This morning I was thinking about the people I look up to in fat activism. Fandom has little interest for me because it is dehumanising, it's kind of flat. What I seek is deep and rich mutual engagement with people's work and ideas. In this way, I think of myself as standing on the shoulders of giants, and I hope that people will use my shoulders too (though credit me if you use my work please!), and that in time there will be towers of us, interlinked. In 21st century Western culture there's a faith in this figure of the lone leader but in fat activism I think this is a myth and I would advise scepticism of anyone who claims to have invented this stuff, or is looking to be the spokesperson for the movement, because there are so many fantastic activists who came before the current generation and I want to see them name-checked too! More than scepticism, I would advise people to visit an archive, ask around, and bone up on fat activist histories. My Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline project can help with this.

So I thought I'd name some names. There are many people in fat activism that I respect, but these people are the bomb:

Llewellyn Louderback left fat activism almost as soon as he started it, but not without publishing an article and a book that had a big influence on the movement. Over 40 years later, Fat Power is still amazingly relevant. He had a vision and the means to realise it; we should all be so lucky.

The fat feminists. These women, often lesbians, developed a political analysis of fat that included intersectionality, community and culture. Their feminism enabled fat women to locate the sources of oppression and liberation in everyday moments. Their work is often painfully obscure, but they are heroes in my world, the muthas of the movement, I am indebted to them beyond belief for their work, which has enabled me and many others to thrive. Sara Golda Bracha Fishman, also known as Vivian Mayer and Aldebaran, Judy Freespirit and Lynn McAfee are the key people who come to mind. They developed The Fat Underground into an organisation that defined fat activism, and still does to a great extent. Judy and Lynn went on to develop other significant fat activist projects, Sara helped develop fat activism on the East Coast of the USA, and produced this excellent article: Life In The Fat Underground. Elana Dykewomon and Judith Stein were also associated with these women. Elana published the most startling essays and poems documenting early fat feminism; Judith was an important mover and shaker in Boston, pioneering women's health, fat activism, and Jewish lesbian feminist politics.

Heather Smith used fat feminism from the US to develop a fat feminist community in the UK in the late 1980s. Other women were involved with the London Fat Women's Group, but it is Heather's articles and appearances in the British media at that time that turned me onto fat activism. One day I hope we can sit down together over a coffee.

And then there are the queers! Kathleen LeBesco's work championing the queerness of fat bodies and fat activism is visionary. Allyson Mitchell's activism and art blows my mind, the same goes for Scottee's use of fat in performance, and Substantia's abundance of fat photoactivism. The NOLOSE Board have navigated tricky waters around race and gender with imagination and integrity. There's FaT GiRL too.

I have friends and loves whose fat activism moves me very much: hello Amanda, Devra, Kay, and Simon. There are people, too, that I will never know, but whose images spur me onwards: Divine, Fran Fullenwider, Judith Clarke's photograph of Banshee that I found in the GLBT Historical Society archive in San Francisco.

I know there are many names I have missed out, the more I think of people, the more names and faces pop up. But this is where I will leave it for now. Perhaps you might like to share your own giants, perhaps here in comments, or in posts of your own.

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