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.