26 March 2013

Research: why are lesbians fat?

I'm working on a project at the moment which has entailed looking at data on lesbians and BMI (Body Mass Index, the hugely flawed socio-medical measurement tool that stratifies human body diversity into normal and abnormal/pathological states).

There is quite a lot of data available that correlates lesbians with higher BMI. This is surprising since lesbians are not usually the social group most likely to be invited to play in the petri dish. As research subjects go, lesbians are generally marginal, which means that evidence on issues that particularly affect lesbians is often slim on the ground. If you happen to be a lesbian, it can be difficult to make choices or to know where you stand in relation to certain health and social issues; that is if your choices are based in data.

But when you're talking about BMI, lesbians are the hot new social group in the research world.

Part of the interest in lesbian BMI is that lesbians also have a statistically raised risk of breast cancer, according to published research. This correlation may be significant in cancer research; what is it about lesbians that raises their risk for breast cancer? Can this variable be identified and used to help a broader population? Is the correlation about BMI? (By the way, this isn't a post about whether being a fat lesbian means that you'll get breast cancer, that needs a lot more unpacking than I have space to do here today, but we can certainly talk about it another time). As readers of this blog will know, BMI is a Big Deal in the same way that a cure for cancer is a Big Deal. When something is a Big Deal, research funding gets a lot easier to obtain.

Now lesbian BMI in its own right is the subject of a major research project. Last week The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US awarded $1.5 million (about £1m) to find out why lesbians are fat.

What appears to be the big puzzle is that although, statistically, lesbians generally have higher BMI than straight women, they don't seem to care as much about it as heterosexual women, it just doesn't bother lesbians as much. Yes, you read that correctly: there are some women who don't care very much that they're fat! How can it be?! They must be ker-azy! Whatta world!

Various hypotheses have been mooted for this social anomaly in a number of prior research projects, such as – and I paraphrase – lesbians aren't trying to please men and so they just let themselves go; or lesbians are somehow immune because they aren't part of the world of the normals; or lesbians are just weird. These explanations come saturated with stereotyping and are more likely to reveal broader social values and prejudices rather than much that is useful in the data.

There is a lot that is being overlooked here. It's possible that lesbians are more self-accepting of fatness because they are part of communities that have benefitted from 40-odd years of fat feminism. My PhD research tracked how fat feminism travelled through lesbian communities, through friendships and relationships, and through lesbian feminist, and later queer, media and organisations in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. This travelling fat feminism is also the stuff that enabled me to start thinking of my own fat body differently, back in the day. This was a phenomenon that was largely out of the sight of the straight world, though occasionally it surfaced on the Donahue show or, in the UK, with BBC chat-show host Terry Wogan, of all people. But I have evidence about the power of this discourse, shared and developed by peers, how it transformed many people's lives from abjection to social action, and how it continues to influence dynamic possibilities for living well at a higher weight. Lesbians basically invented fat activism, helped establish Health At Every Size and remain prominent within that movement.

Instead of building on this earlier work, learning from lesbian cultures, this new NIH funded project by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston looks set to try and destroy it (yeah, that's Boston, the home of some incredible fat lesbian activists and women's health pioneers). Their grant description frames lesbians not as heroes who expose the hypocrisy of fat panic, who have offered long-term evidence of low-or-no-cost, risk-free, practical interventions for well-being that could easily be adapted by and for other populations, but as a saddo social group who are "disproportionately affected by the obesity epidemic," which, let's remember is “one of the most critical public health issues affecting the US today”. The use of social justice language to appropriate lesbians into the rhetoric of the obesity epidemic beggars belief. Homophobia is surely part of this story too. Presumably this new research will help return lesbians to the straight and narrow and teach them the errors of their fat-friendly ways.

Edited to add:

I've just read a post by Marcie Bianco, Editorial Director at Velvet Park magazine. She links to this blog post, completely misunderstanding it and twisting it to support her own rendering of obesity epidemic rhetoric with added lesbian. She writes:
As "fat friendly" as our community has become, I think it's time that lesbians really begin to reflect and interrogate their life styles. Our feminism doesn't mean the self-abuse of our bodies, which is what, I think, some people conflate with a "healthy body image." A recent blog over at ObesityTimeBomb explains how lesbians have become "the hot new social group in the research world" because we are statistically fatter than our straight counterparts. Seventy-five percent of us are obese. Overall we have higher BMIs (Body Mass Indexes) than hetero-women, which is one reason why the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is starting a new $1.5mil study to find out why lesbians are fat—correlatively, too, why we have higher rates of breast cancer, as well as some other cancers.

This study is immensely problemmatic for a variety of reasons (who is lesbian or how do we define lesbian being, to my mind, the largest one), and the answer seems obvious (poor diet aggrevates risk of disease/illness), so even I think this is wasteful spending. What would seem a better study might involve researching why queer women overeat—previous sexual abuse? Lesbian Bed Death? depression? other mental health issues stemming from their collective socio-economic condition in a straight, patriarchal world?

At the very least, lesbos, I think we need to reassess our "lesbian body consciousness."

I have asked the site to remove the link to my work because I don't want to be associated with fatphobia. I don't endorse what she has written at all. Feel free to write to Velvet Park if you would like to complain or make a comment about this article.

The broader point to be made here, however, is in the erasure of lesbian resistance to obesity discourse, not only in the mainstream, but by lesbians too, many of whom, it seems, have already swallowed the straight and narrow and are cluelessly happy to uphold this rubbish.


BBC (1989) Wogan UK: [Television], The London Fat Women's Group.

Bianco, M. (2013) 'Your Bliss Point & Lesbian Obesity', [online], available: http://velvetparkmedia.com/blogs/your-bliss-point-lesbian-obesity [accessed 27 March 2013].

Freespirit, J. (1986) 'doing donahue', Common Lives/Lesbian Lives, 20, 5-14.

Harrington, E. (2013) 'Feds Spend $1.5 Million to Study Why Lesbians Are Fat', [online], available: http://cnsnews.com/news/article/feds-spend-15-million-study-why-lesbians-are-fat [accessed 26 March 2013].

15 March 2013

Why do you laugh at the fat people?

Hamburger Queen is well underway and last night's show was electrifying.

As regular readers will know, this season I am honoured to serve as Hamburger Queen's in-house psychotherapist. I really honour the work that Scottee and Amy have done with these sessions. I think the complexity they bring to the question of fat identity, and their sheer realness about it, is very powerful. It makes space for other people in the world who can't live up to the nonsense poster queen myth of the perfect fat activist. I will be doing a bigger round-up sometime soon, but for now I want to talk about something that happened last night.

In Why Are You Fat? #2, both Scottee and Amy Lamé recount difficult and painful moments in their lives, which they think have a significant bearing on why they are fat.

Hamburger Queen is a riotous affair, people are drinking, and this video presented a dramatic change in mood. There are some good lines, but I don't think of this video as funny at all. The stories are about fear, panic, vulnerability, shame. What's funny about that? Not much, not anything. Yet a small clutch of people in the audience laughed, they laughed throughout, even at the most difficult disclosures.

Fat people experience hatred in many forms. Sometimes it's pity, other times prurience. It can be physical, it can take the form of name-calling or physical assaults. But mostly it's more subtle, like the systematic denial that we are even people that plays out in a thousand daily micro-aggressions. But laughter, that's a headfuck, to use the official terminology.

To be laughed at when you are disclosing deep trauma that has been compounded by shame is a particular kind of violence against the self that is profoundly disturbing. It says, to me, "everything you are is a joke, there is nothing of substance about you, your deepest pain is a triviality." It's the laughter of annihilation.

I found the laughter last night shocking, but not surprising, it's a depressingly familiar experience. Fat people are supposed to be funny. Being funny is a survival strategy for many of us, and a lot of famous fat people got that way because they had a knack for being hilarious. I suppose what we witnessed last night was a shadow side to this jolly stereotype.

But being able to turn the laughter around is a powerful weapon against hate. I try and do that with my own activism, and Hamburger Queen is a weekly masterclass in this tactic. Last night it was the fatsos not the laughers who called the shots. When you're in a room full of people – of all sizes too! – who love their fat friends, love fat spectacle, love being together, it makes it easier to see that the ones who are laughing inappropriately are probably doing so because their minds are being blown and they don't know how else to cope but gibber helplessly. When you're in a room of people who want to see fat people thrive, and are appalled by the people who laugh at us meanly, it makes it easier to call out a small group of thoughtless people. So we called them out and they stopped laughing.

11 March 2013

Report: Fat Talks Back at WOW2013

WOW Fat Talks Back minutes
Women of the World (aka WOW) is an annual festival at the South Bank in London. It's a mainstream feminist event and visiting it feels a bit like listening to an extended episode of Woman's Hour – not everyone's idea of heaven! But WOW is a big deal, it's hosted at the Royal Festival Hall, one of the jewels of London, and many people come. There are panels and presentations, activities and performances.

This year, WOW bit the bullet and invited a bunch of us to do a panel on fat. Corinna Tomrley chaired, and I participated, alongside Isha Reid and Caroline Walters. We called the panel Fat Talks Back because of the history in mainstream feminism of marginalising fat within broader discussions of 'body image,' 'beauty,' 'dieting' and so on. We thought of the space as an opportunity to speak for ourselves.

I know the hard-working organisers had no intention of pushing us to the back, and they made every effort to make space for us, but I also had a sneaky giggle to myself because the room was in quite an obscure place in the building, and I was reminded of how the fat clothes are always pushed to the back of the shop. This made it especially delightful that we packed out the room. I don't know the exact figures but I think over 100 came, and it was standing/squatting room only.

Corinna organised the panel so that the three of us gave prepared answers to three questions:

  • What is fat activism for you or, how does your fat activism manifest itself for you?
  • Mainstream discussions about fat and size tend to focus on the concept of ‘skinny’ vs the ‘average-sized UK woman’ (apparently size 14-16): what does this mean for fat activism? And women who are bigger than a size 16?
  • How/does fatness and feminism intersect for you?

Our answers were pretty diverse and reflected our interests: Isha in fatshion and blogging; Caroline in teaching and academic life; me in fat feminism and activism, and psychotherapy. I was glad of this because I think there's a temptation to try and simplify the experience of being fat, or an activist, to single narratives, when actually there are many different ways of expressing this stuff.

After this, we answered some questions from the floor. If I had a penny for every time questions from the floor start with "Yes, but is it healthy?" I would be richer than Croesus. It's especially bewildering when health has not been a part of the previous discussion. It's as though talking about fat can only ever be a discussion about health and, even then, a discussion of how fat can't really be healthy, with the subtext that we must be deluding ourselves. Am I frustrated about this? Yes. There is a lot more to be said about fat and feminism than "Yes, but is it healthy?"

My favourite question came at the end; someone asked about the emphasis being put on thin privilege within fat activism. I answered that I thought this was a shame, that you often come across fat activism that focuses on how terrible it is being fat. I think being fat is often terrible, but that activism is about joy, power, strength, making lives liveable.

The session lasted an hour, and there was so much more that could have been said. From the quiet and respectful audience, the packed room, the comments and discussion afterwards, I really got a sense that people were hungry for this stuff and wanted to talk more, but perhaps didn't know where to start, such has been the overwhelming silencing effect of obesity epidemic rhetoric in the last ten years or so.

Meanwhile, check out some pics on the Fat Talks Back event page and visit the Storify. By the way, the image comes from the gorgeous drawn minutes of the festival, but I can't find any more information about this project.

05 March 2013

Trademarking Health At Every Size

The Journal of Critical Dietetics has just published an article I co-authored with Jacqui Gingras called 'Down the Rabbit Hole: A Critique of the ® in HAES®'.

The article came about through discussions of what it meant that the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) had trademarked the concepts Health At Every Size, and HAES.

As activists and scholars, we wanted to raise difficult and impertinent questions about who owns the movement, and about who watches the watchers. We have offered this paper as a means of creating dialogue about the trademarking. I think it also has relevance for discussions about professionalisation within grassroots social justice movements.

Critical Dietetics is an open access journal. This means that you don't have to pay to read the articles, although you do need to register on the site to access them (the other articles in this issue are really good too!). Go to the journal page to register and download the article (link at the beginning of this post). There is also space to comment on the Critical Dietetics blog.

Gingras, J. and Cooper, C. (2013) 'Down the Rabbit Hole: A Critique of the ® in HAES®', Journal of Critical Dietetics, 1(3), 2-5.