26 February 2013

Documenting anti-fat street harassment

When I talk to people who have no idea about fat politics, the thing that they most fixate on, after "but is it healthy?" is the fact of street harassment. They usually express a great deal of shock that fat people get stared at, spat at, shouted at, touched, followed, photographed, attacked, and laughed at by strangers in the street. This isn't some abstract fatty I'm conjuring here, these things have happened, and continue to happen, to me too.

Street harassment really touches a nerve. Never mind that many of us also experience harassment from our partners, families, friends, colleagues, people serving us in shops or restaurants – and that we also harass ourselves! You can almost see people's brain cogs whirring into action when you tell them about it: "Must.. not… get… fat… not just ugly and unhealthy… but… street… harassment… too."

Sometimes I get the feeling that the shock is a little overdone, it's hard to believe that they have so little clue about what it is to be hated, but there it is. The converation ususally ends with me being pitied. This is the point at which I realise that we have little left to discuss because, as disabled activists have shown, pity is not much better than hate, if you're trying to get someone to treat you as a proper living person.

Accounts of harassment in fat activism are as old as the movement itself but, apparently, they have made little impact on the world in general. NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) was founded with a remit against harassment, and there are numerous accounts of it by the fat feminists of the 1970s and 1980s. My book, Fat & Proud, published 15 years ago, also documents the phenomenon extensively. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many fat people suffer with agoraphobia, which isn't much of a surprise in this context. It's not as if fat people are keeping this stuff to themselves, we are outraged about it.

Now a new wave of activists and artists are trying to show what it's like to be a fat person who leaves the house. Haley Morris-Cafiero is a photographer whose project Wait Watchers documents those oh-so-familiar stares that pass in a fleeting moment and are tricky to explain to people who are not on the receiving end of them. Kath from Fat Heffalump produced her own version of these photographs, demonstrating that Haley's experience is not unique. Substantia Jones, whose fat photo-activism with The Adipositivity Project is legendary, has recently launched Smile, Sizeist! The tagline goes: "Next time someone's a dick to you about your size, raise your most powerful weapons. Your voice and your camera." She presents sometimes harrowing photographic evidence of the violent effect of anti-obesity rhetoric in everyday lives.

These fat art and activism interventions bring to mind other projects concerned with transforming power in street harassment. The appalling case of the woman killed after being raped on a bus in Delhi has further mobilised groups of activists against the continuing assault of women and girls in public spaces, for example. Elsewhere, Hollaback! was founded in 2005 and now has numerous chapters around the world. It's mission is simple, to end street harassment. Originally a project about sexist harassment, Hollaback! now addresses other forms of harassment and is a ripe contender for collaborative work around anti-fat street abuse in the West, in my humble opinion.

When fat people seize the power inherent to our own gaze and turn it outwards, we repudiate the cruelty directed towards us, we refuse to be transformed into passive objects and we claim our humanity. Whether or not the normals will take any notice of this and move beyond a patronising pity of us into action that helps prevent harassment remains to be seen. I am concerned that those documenting harassment should tread carefully around revenge. I have written elsewhere of my reticence about Bash Back, for example, and I think fighting violence with violence only escalates matters. But it is crucial that we record and witness these incidents for ourselves at least, and remind each other that we are not alone. If we can do it collectively, with style, across intersections, then all the better.

11 February 2013

Anti-obesity campaigns: fatphobia in radical communities

Back in August last year, I had a testy interaction with someone on Facebook about something they did that I thought reeked of fat hate.

The Real Art of Protest (TRAP) is a Facebook group dedicated to reposting protest images. Their About page states that they will ban users for racism, sexism, comments offensive to those who are LGBT, disableism, trolling, using personal insults and justifying the existence of fascist organisations. Very honourable. They're a popular page.

But in August I started to see them reposting an image. Of course now I can't find it! Perhaps they quietly took it down when no one was looking. Hmm, an apology would have gone a long way too. Anyway, the image included a fat kid, junk food, and the Olympic stadium. It was a visual comment trying to make a point about McDonald's corporate sponsorship of the Olympics, implying that one of the Games' legacies would be the production of more fat kids. I haven't been able to find the originator of this image, and TRAP doesn't always give out that information. I left a comment immediately saying why I thought this image was a mistake, and then I sent TRAP a message about it inviting dialogue about the picture. I also wanted to talk to them about their use of imagery relating to fat capitalists, but we never got that far. The full transcript of the exchange is below.

I've been wanting to make a blog post out of this exchange for a while but I couldn't get a handle on it. Mostly I was angry about having my careful comments dismissed in such a patronising and cavalier way. But there were other themes that bothered me, and which couldn't be contained in a neat narrative for a blog post. Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, I thought I'd just go ahead and write a messy post all about it. Not everything can be neatly storyfied after all, life is messy.

One of the themes is about the continuing failure of the radical Left to consider other forms of liberation politics, especially things that could be thought of as fringe, including fat stuff. The use of headless fatties and the language of fat hate was not confined to the mainstream, particularly during the Olympics in London, where I live. It was also included in radical spaces. The Olympics brought with it a giant, overwhelming rhetoric of patriotic groupthink, it was like an invasion of the pod people. Critics of this moment were few and far between, or at least their voices were barely represented anywhere. To be a critic of the Olympics was to be politically radical, yet here were radicals capitalising on fatphobia.

It would be churlish to expect everyone to know about fat politics, but what shocked me was how I was shut down when I called them on their depiction of fatness. This was in a context where they had posted other images that supposedly supported embodied liberation, and where their About page specifically mentioned ableism, which has a lot to do with how embodied difference is culturally positioned in negative ways. It felt really hypocritical to me, that some forms of resistance are acceptable, and others not, and that TRAP were unwilling to adopt a critical view of this stuff.

Another theme was the insistence that fat has nothing to do with politics, it just is, and it should be eliminated. I'm still staggered by this! The denial that fat has a political dimension, by people interested in politics, just amazes me.

This makes me think about other fatphobes who have some radical politics and know that they can’t talk shit about fat. What they do is dismiss fat politics in other ways. X implies that fat activism isn’t queer or feminist. Y implies that it is a white person’s thing. Z describes it as a hipster fad that's out of touch with real people's experiences of health or embodiment. None of them have done their homework but they arrogantly assume that they don’t have to. Their voices are influential within their subcultures and the lie continues that fat activism is conservative, rigid, limited, not worth bothering with. Fat is always trivial, secondary, not real.

The exchange brought into light the difficulty of speaking about fat. I'm lucky in that people often want me to talk about this stuff, but it reminded me of what it's like to speak into a vacuum, to people who have no concept of your framework. Sometimes this can bring up funny and even fruitful mismatches in discourse; for example, I enjoy listening to the fatphobe who's really interested in what I'm saying but is bound to a way of thinking about fat that can't really encompass my perspective. How they struggle! But then there are exchanges like this, where I might as well be speaking Martian, and where what I am saying cannot be at all tolerated. The silencing is really chilling, as is the automatic assumption in the exchange by the other person that they must be right.

Anyway, here is the transcript from the exchange, for your reading pleasure. I think of it as a little example of fatphobic micro-aggression. If you're fat and you want to talk about it it's likely that you've experienced many occasions like these. It's also a reminder of how profoundly fat politics threatens people.

1 August 2012
Charlotte Cooper

Dear TRAP,

Stop using images of fat people to promote ideas of greed, laziness, ill-health, capitalism. This is fatphobia. Your About page says that you will not tolerate ableism, so why bash a demographic that is closely associated with the most impoverished people around (want stats about how fat people in the West are more likely to be poor, older women of colour? I can send them). Not only impoverished, but a group of people that are subjected to the most egregious daily discrimination and stigma (again, I can send you data if you want it), that images like the ones you have produced do nothing to address.

The left, including the revolutionary left, has a dismal history of using the imagery of fat to denote corporate greed and the downfall of the world, and this has to change.

Here are some links that might help you understand a bit more why your headless fatty McDonalds picture is bullshit, and why you should apologise for it and get on board with radical fat activism.


You want radical images of fat that relate to the Olympics? I live in E15, in the shadow of the beast. Check out our community project, the Fattylympics:



TRAP - The Real Art of Protest

the imagery is a dig at corporations and not people as is the only interpretation of that image taken as a whole with the text and the corporate logos of the olympics largest sponsors. The lead off from unhealthy food is obesity and therefore the image will not be removed or rendered. Sorry, but you are being hypersensitive.

Charlotte Cooper

Did you read the links?

TRAP - The Real Art of Protest

If you knew anything about the page you would know we have CONSISTENTLY attacked corporations with regard to the olympics. The only individuals who we attack are politicians, corporate spokespersons and royalty i.e. the enemy.

Charlotte Cooper

Yes, I get that, and I applaud it, I am no supporter of the Olympics, I live close to the Olympic Park and am disgusted by it, the corporate intrusion into East London is deplorable. But did you read the links I posted? Perhaps we could have a discussion about the use of headless fatty imagery, for example.

Also, "The lead off from unhealthy food is obesity" actually, this is not necessarily true. Would you like to talk about this?

TRAP - The Real Art of Protest

Not really, we are already very mindful of the nuances of our posts and do not need educating on sensitive activism. We take your input seriously and can assure you we will access your links and review our own processes. Thanks for the links and thanks for your input - it is appreciated.

Charlotte Cooper

Actually, you have been anything but sensitive on this issue. You are out of touch on the fat stuff, and your use of fat bodies is insulting and problematic. This is not just me being 'hypersensitive'. I am offering you an opportunity to develop your understanding of fat politics, and to understand how it intersects with disability rights, queer politics, anti-capitalism, and to develop shit hot activism that takes this stuff into account. I am a world expert on this stuff, widely published and respected around the world. I'm not talking out of my arse. But you are giving me the brush-off. This does not look like appreciation to me, it looks like arrogance. You don't want free knowledge? Your loss. Continue producing images that crap all over a demographic of people who don't need your shit, continue alienating people who could otherwise be supporting you.

05 February 2013

Why anorexia and obesity are not the same

Zoe Williams' recent article for The Guardian is the latest instance of a journalistic conflation of anorexia and obesity. To me, these concepts are very different to each other, and treating them as mirror images of each other is damaging to people with eating disorders, and fat people. I think it perpetuates particular stereotypes associated with each group, and overlooks the possibility that fat people might suffer from anorexia too.

With this in mind, I've drawn a handy table with some notes in it about how anorexia and obesity are different, and how they have some similarities. I have no deep knowledge of eating disorders, so what I say about anorexia is a lay understanding, and there will probably be things that I've said clumsily and need clarifying or addressing. But my aim with this table is to encourage people, particularly journalists, to be careful when they throw these concepts about.

I'm using 'obesity' here to mean a medicalised discourse of fat.

Anorexia Obesity
Is a kind of mental illness that affects people of all sizes, though is commonly associated with very thin people, especially young women. Is a means of classifying and stratifying certain kinds of bodies.
Is primarily assumed to be associated with not eating. The etymology of the word is rooted in the concept 'to have eaten' but fat body size does not tell you much about people's eating behaviour.
Is typified by particular behaviours. Is assumed to be the result of particular behaviours, particularly 'compulsive eating'.
The behaviours typified by anorexia are associated with mental illness. Some fat people have mental illness, it's hard not to when you are a highly stigmatised social group, but fat itself is not an automatic signifier of mental illness or pathology, even though Susie Orbach and many others have popularised this view.
Is a series of behaviours associated with a faulty relationship to food. Is assumed to be the result of a faulty relationship with food.
Treatment for anorexia may or may not be helpful. Treatment for eating disorders is unlikely to be helpful for fat people who don't have an eating disorder.
Lack of political organisation, unless you count pro-ana as activism. Fat people have critiqued 'obesity' and are politically organised, to some extent.
The extremes of very thin (anorexic) and very fat (obese) people are often used as mirrors of each other. Fat and thin are not opposites, but part of a vast diversity of human body shapes.
Anorexia and obesity are both subject to a lot of social anxiety and cultural mythology, supported by medicalisation.
Anorexia and obesity are both subject to a muddled discourse, often rooted in Second Wave feminism, which often raises the spectre of the 'bombarded by media images' origin story cliché.
Anorexia and obesity are both associated with untimely death, even though people with eating disorders and fat people can live long and productive lives.
Both anorexia and obesity really upset the normals.
'The anorexic' and 'the obese' are groups of people who are commonly abstracted, made anonymous, voiceless and abject, and are rarely offered space by 'the experts' to speak for themselves.
Are reduced to an assumed anxiety about the body and food, but people with eating disorders and fat people have interests elsewhere, for example in the struggle to be autonomous people, a struggle against medicalised control, a struggle against social restrictions.