28 May 2013

Research: media literacy for fat activists

Last week I was dismayed to hear of some fat activist friends who had been stitched-up by a television company after agreeing to do an interview. Sizeoftheocean has blogged about it at Fatuosity. Despite having plenty of experience between them, being smart women, trying to negotiate a situation in which they were fairly represented, the programme makers misled them about the content of the show until it was too late to back out. The women are being strong and brave in the face of this betrayal, but it feels like yet another slap in the face for fat community, and an opportunity to say powerful things about being fat to a large audience has been lost once again.

I feel angry about this story, but I also want to initiate a conversation about fat activism and media literacy. I have some comments to make about my own experience, and a survey to find out about other people's experiences and thoughts about how things could be different. I would like to make a broader project about this stuff, with the aim of developing ways in which fat people and fat activists might engage with media safely and productively. I have begun this with a survey: Talking Fat in the Media, to which you are invited to take part.

My experiences

An invitation to appear on a national TV show, or to have your picture in a magazine is very exciting and enticing if you have things you want to say about being fat. It can seem almost too good to be true if you have spent a chunk of your life being made to feel that you are not fully human, that your fat makes you ugly or disgusting. It can feel like a chance to set things straight at last, a dream of being respected! This has happened to me.

Sadly, this is a naïve position. Few people, and few fat activists, have a critical understanding of how media is made, and how they might work the system. What often happens is that we walk into a situation innocently, and get burned by programme-makers and journalists who have a different agenda. Media makers are bound by codes and ethics, but these do not necessarily extend to their representation of fat people or fat activism, which is often exploitative. Once the paper is published or the show broadcast, it is very difficult to get any redress, and retractions are rare.

Occasions when I have felt stitched-up (ie misled, misrepresented, cheated) by the media include:
  • An interview with a local newspaper. The story I gave them was about how many people had sponsored me to go to college to write about fat politics because they believed this was a worthwhile thing to do. It was about alternative means of fund-raising for education. The actual headline: "Charlotte Cooper Says 'Now You Can Indulge and Bulge'".
  • Two very nice, posh women working in TV who used their charm to make me feel that they really understood me and were completely on my side. I fell for it and ended up on their late night freakshow with live callers telling me how much they wanted to have sex with me whilst the camera took a close-up of my face.
  • Despite several emails clarifying my position when it was clear they did not understand me, the well-regarded academic who ignored almost everything I said about my own activism and went on not only to publish a paper about me, but to become the go-to expert about fat activism.
  • The broadsheet that sent a photographer round to take my picture which, despite me smiling sweetly throughout the session, chose the only one in which my guard was momentarily dropped, making me look like an 'angry, strident feminist' stereotype.
  • The tabloid journalists for a national newspaper who came to our community event undercover, took photos of people without their consent, and published a smarmy story about us.
  • The national feminist radio show where I thought I was going to talk about my book but where I actually had to justify my reason for existing in a debate of which I had no prior knowledge. The person arguing me down was backed up by their professional identity, their upper-middle class identity, and the support of obesity discourse and the programme-makers. I was in my 20s and unemployed. As I write recently, it's not that I don't want debate, but these debates do not take place on a level playing field.
Each one of these humiliating occasions has been absolutely mortifying, sometimes the shame surrounding these experiences has lasted for many years. It's a very lonely feeling. These are just the tip of the iceberg, and even when a media appearance goes well, it is exhausting and stressful.

Having been burned too many times, these days I only respond to media requests if:
  • They show some respect for my work and familiarity with it
  • I have something I want to publicise, and if I know I can get something out of the encounter
  • I know and trust the journalist or media outlet
  • I have editorial control
  • I get paid
  • Occasionally I pass on media requests to other people who might want to make use of it, but not often because, frankly, the requests are usually exploitative.
Given all this, I generally invest more in making my own media, and I talk about fat in situations where I can speak on my own terms, for example on my blog, in social media, at gatherings, or via DIY media.

It doesn't have to be like this

The effect of fat people being stitched-up in the media is that it is very difficult for fat activists to participate in public debate. You have to be extremely tough in order to handle this kind of treatment and, not surprisingly, most people are not up to it, and it's easy to get burned out very quickly. It means that media reproduce dominant thinking about fat with very little critical material. It also reproduces the idea that there is no other way of thinking or working around fat, and that critical approaches don't exist or have no power. People with powerful things to say about fat remain in the margins or dismissed as cranks, whilst the real cranks grab the limelight and cash-in.

It doesn't have to be like this. Its time to get together and form some community strategies for working with the media. What advice do we have for media makers who want to include fat people in their work? What demands can we make for fair treatment? What does fair treatment even look like? What advice do we have for each other? What strategies and knowledge can we share? How can we make our encounters with media as safe and productive as possible? How can we nix exploitative media without censorship or shaming fat people who choose to engage with it?

I have started the ball rolling with a survey about people's experiences with being stitched-up by the media when we talk about fat stuff. I would like to develop the survey responses into a bigger project, perhaps articles, workshops, zines, or something else. I want to be part of a big discussion about how we can take care of ourselves as well as develop public ideas about fat. I believe that both are possible.

The survey

Talking Fat in the Media Survey

Please pass this link along to everyone you know!

Edited to add: I've been overwhelmed with responses to the survey and I have now closed it. Analysis and comments coming soon. Giant thanks to everyone who took part.

23 May 2013

Review: Unhappy Birthday

I'm late to the party but had an opportunity to get smeared with cake and declared the face of the British obesity epidemic yesterday evening as an member of the audience for Amy Lamé's show Unhappy Birthday. This is running for a little while yet, so there's still a chance to go and see it at the lovely Camden People's Theatre in London.

Unhappy Birthday takes the form of Amy's birthday party; there are party poppers and little conical hats for everyone, a tray of snacks, a big present and a seat reserved for the guest of honour: Morrissey. We hear stories of Amy growing up, and her progression from unhinged Morrissey superfan to even more unhinged Morrissey superfan. Things soon start to unravel and by the end of the show our hostess has, variously, threatened, cajoled, sanctified, smooched and fed us.

Some things worth remarking upon:

  • Unhappy Birthday is the latest product from the house of Amy Lamé and Scottee, who directed the show. If you liked Hamburger Queen, you'll love this. Little touches like sequins, jokes about performance art, shimmer curtains, dressing up, smeared lipstick are like hallmarks of this beautiful, collaborative, creative work-friendship and are a pleasure to witness.
  • It's not a play about fat, but fat is in there or, rather, morbid obesity. In a climate where academics are calling for policy to pressure media into producing positive images of fat people, Unhappy Birthday reminds me of the delights of mucking about in the gutter. As a person in the public eye, it's really amazing and brilliant to see Amy embrace the grotesque, the un-pretty, the demented, the 'ugly-fat'. She deconstructs her own celebrity, really goes there fearlessly and it's beautiful.
  • Bevin Branlandingham sometimes talks about being called Too Much. The Amy of the show is gleefully Too Much: big, in your face, wild eyes, out of control, running around, yelling "I've been on the TV!" This is the image that anyone who ever gets told they should be quiet, be polite and take up less space in the world should hold in their head.
  • The production design is gorgeous. You get a little zine as a programme, the lighting and projections are pretty, props are revealed from beautiful boxes, there's mess. It's minimalist and maximalist all at once.

Some people I know elsewhere have been raving about Samuel D. Hunter's play The Whale. But performance that's engaged with fat to a greater or lesser extent does not have to be limited to a skinny guy blobbing around a stage in a fatsuit, offering a mawkish rendering of what it is to be fat, in venues that are likely inaccessible to actual superfat people who might want to set folks straight. I see Unhappy Birthday within a scene that includes people like Glenn Marla and Hana Malia, the duo formerly known as Fat Femme Mafia, Emma Corbett-Ashby/Goldie Dartmouth, Rebel Cupcake's roster of performers, Shazzam, even Beth Ditto, who bring their lived understanding of queer fat to performance in diverse, dazzling ways. This is the stuff that makes you feel witnessed, validated, entertained and glad to be alive.

Ok, that's all, go and see it.

22 May 2013

Talk: Weight Stigma 2013

I was invited to give a presentation at the first Weight Stigma conference last week. The conference was organised by Angela Meadows, a PhD student at Birmingham University. I spoke about Research Justice.

Research Justice is a concept emerging from activist communities in the US, and has roots in disability activism. It proposes that research subjects should have a voice in the research undertaken about them; it also treats research as a tool to support social change.

Research Justice really excites me because it adds a practical dimension to the discussion about the failings of obesity research, and proposes measures for building research projects that have more direct benefit to fat people.

In the presentation I explained what is meant by Research Justice; why it's important that people get on board with it in relation to fat and stigma; and I showed what it might look like in real-life settings by making some mock-ups of a series of web pages.

I recorded my talk and have added it to my slides. You can watch and listen to it here on YouTube. There were some questions afterwards but, since I do not have people's consent to include them, I have cut them out.

When Angela invited me to talk, some months ago, I knew that I wanted to present something about Research Justice, because this had a powerful effect on the way I approached my own research. I didn't realise how prescient the subject would be on the day.

I appreciate the work undertaken by Angela and the other organisers and volunteers, it was very clear that people worked extremely hard to get the conference off the ground and are deeply committed to the work. I also mourn the fact that there are so few spaces that engage with any critical voices on obesity at all. Our ESRC Fat Studies seminars ended in 2011, and since then Fat Studies in the UK has become fairly quiet, and has also become subsumed into the rhetoric of Health At Every Size. Not that anyone has gone away; there were many speakers at the Weight Stigma conference, and opportunities for debate across fat and obesity frameworks. There's still so much to say, and a lot of work to be done. Another Weight Stigma conference has been set for next year, and I hope that other gatherings spin off from it too.

The conference raised many questions for me about who gets to talk about fat. I think, but I'm not sure, that I was the only speaker out of 17 who identified explicitly as fat and brought that identity to the work I was presenting. I wonder whether or not this will continue in subsequent conferences. I don't think that fat people are the only people allowed to talk about fat, fat stuff is a subject for everybody, but I think it's perplexing that the people who research and theorise fat, or at least those academics who are visible in that work, are generally normatively-sized. This is not necessarily to criticise their work (some of it's great, some not) but there are conversations about thin privilege and its effects on the work that are not yet happening within this milieu and which, I think, need to be expressed. Additionally, there are plenty of Fat Studies scholars, and activists too, who are fat, who include the knowledge they have as fat people into their work, and who would be great speakers at conferences about fat and stigma.

(By the way, during one of the breaks I asked a couple of people who enjoyed my talk, who wanted to know more, and who work for a fairly trad anti-obesity organisation why they thought people like me never get invited to speak at those £500-a-ticket obesity conferences. Answer: because my presence would completely undermine everything! I think I may have blown their minds with that one, whoops).

Where fat people are in the minority at an event about fatness, debate may be possible but this does not take place on a level playing field. Instead of an environment where open sharing of ideas is possible, only the very bravest and articulate – or furious! – are able to speak because the setting is risky. Few people have the security of a PhD in contributing to debate and it's easy for academics to shoot down comments made by people who don't share their privilege. It means that people with lived experience of fatness, or activists and allies, become marginalised where academic discourse is regarded as the gold standard. For example, one woman I spoke to at the conference, a fat woman new to activism, was talking to a thin academic, a presenter, and when he asked who she was and what she did – she's not an academic – patronised her by saying: "Oh! You're the general public!"

Another incident intrigued me on the day. An academic said some fatphobic things and this was down-played by two others. He'd dropped a bomb, stating that even if fat people present to him with 'healthy' (whatever that means) behaviours, he will remind them that their fat bodies are not acceptable and that they need to lose weight. When questioned on this, he shrugged and remarked: "It's just the truth." A fat woman tried to tear him a new one, and during the course of the day he was on the receiving end of some stink-eye from others. Stink-eye is what maligned people resort to when all else fails and they know they're not going to be heard. Yet another academic tried to force some kind of agreement and common ground with him, appealing to appealing to manners and polite debate. The fatphobic speaker was later praised as "brave" for having spoken; never mind that he's a privileged academic who does this kind of thing for a living and whose work is deeply embedded within a dominant discourse from which he benefits in terms of money and status. Later the audience was chastised by another speaker for being "mean" to him because, presumably, fat people and our allies are not allowed to be extremely angry when someone pulls this crap in a setting where we may have assumed folks will be advocating for us.

The day was pretty exhausting and I was left wondering where Weight Stigma might go, whether it will become another kind of obesity conference, whether it will build capacity in fat people within and beyond the academy to articulate our own lives, and about the role of the academy and the professionalisation of fat and obesity discourse within the conference.

I am really glad that I was invited to speak at Weight Stigma, and very happy that the conference offered financial assistance to people who could not otherwise afford to attend. Great, too, that they offered Continuing Professional Development accreditation to people. I'm thinking how capacity in non-academic participants could be extended, perhaps through pre-conference workshops, or some kind of orientation event. I hope very much that the people who continue Weight Stigma undertake the vital work of developing fat community links, and I am available to help facilitate that if they are interested.

01 May 2013

What is a Fat Activist?

A fat activist is a person who thinks about fat in ways that challenge, question and critique most mainstream thinking about fat. Fat activists seek social change and consider fatness a factor within already existing matrices of oppression and liberation. Fat activists generally regard fatness as valuable, and fat people as valuable people (also legitimate, agentic, cherished, worth as much human respect as anybody else). There are many debates within fat activism about choice, weight loss, culpability, and there is immense pressure on fat people to 'become normal,' but I think a general feeling in fat activism is that the world would be a poorer place without fat people. This is a key distinction between fat activism and a discourse upholding 'obesity' which is more likely to be concerned with eradicating fat, or failing to respect the humanity of fat people.

Fat activists come from every background and have diverse ideas about what constitutes 'challenging most mainstream thinking about fat'. Often fat activists disagree with each other about what that means, often we have incompatible ideas about social change, often these ideas are rooted in our social identities. Sometimes fat activists find allies in places beyond fat activism, but it's common for broader social movements to marginalise discussions about fat; this is particularly true in the radical Left.

Fat activists act on their thoughts about challenging mainstream thinking about fat in many different ways. Sometimes acting on those thoughts means having other thoughts, other times it means speaking with other people, putting things out in the world (a blog post, a book, a letter, something tangible or consumable), making a gesture. Sometimes these actions will be easily understood as 'activism' (a demonstration, a campaign); other times they will be very small and interpersonal (a conversation, a decision to wear one kind of thing and not another); and sometimes these actions are very ambiguous (an action that tries to show the value of fat people but relies on oppressive clichés, for example, or a company that uses fat activism purely to make money). Fat activism is not only a challenge, it is also a generative movement that is concerned with creating fat culture and community. Fat activists act by themselves and with other people, they use whatever resources they have to hand: 20,000 Twitter followers, crochet, imagination, a trust fund, etc.

Fat activists are not always fat, though who and what constitutes fat is complicated and should be the subject of a different post.

Fat activism is a social movement that emerged out of civil rights discourse in the US in the late 1960s, and has strong ideological links with feminism, queerness, and disability rights activism, though few fat activists are aware of its relatively long history, or theoretical underpinnings. This is because it is sketchily documented, and also because to most people the idea of fat activism, or a social movement concerned with fat, is little more than a joke. Meanwhile, the ramping-up of anti-obesity rhetoric in the West around the turn of the millennium, combined with accessible technology and social media has accelerated fat activism into a critical discourse with many supporters.

I have offered some ideas here about what constitutes a fat activist. These ideas are based on my own experience and perspectives, and research, and should not be assumed to be carved in stone. There are countless other definitions out there. I think fat activists should continue to offer their own ideas about what fat activism is or means. Let's forget about creating a universal or monodimensional definition, which will always leave someone out in the cold, and instead keep on making a movement of wild and beautiful diversity.

PS This is what a fat activist looks like.