17 December 2014

Is fat now a disability in the UK?

About 20 years ago I published an academic paper and a book based on some postgraduate research that explored the possibility of thinking of fat as disability.

Other people built their own papers on that work, others ignored it and, over the years, there have been occasional flurries of interest in fat and disability intersections within Fat Studies.

My main argument at the time was that it is useful to think of fat as disability using a social model of disability. This means that it is people's attitudes and social structures that need changing as opposed to people's physical and mental impairments (ie, their embodied difference). The social model offers a useful way of critiquing medicalisation which, for fat people, is becoming increasingly intrusive. It also proposes helpful ways of thinking about charity and pity, and about 'helper's' motivations. The social model of disability is a potentially very powerful means for fat people to gain a social identity, build coalitions, and develop a critical and cultural voice collectively. This has remained an idea with scant application, although things might be about to change.

What has hindered that change is that disableism and ignorance about disability means that people resist identifying with it. There is also a belief that fat shouldn't be thought of as a disability because it is the result of people's bad choices and bad behaviour. Why people are fat is a dead-end thread and derails a discussion of who counts as disabled. Within disability community there are vastly different experiences of impairment, it's a very broad group of people. Similarly, smaller fat people are likely to come up against fewer social barriers relating to fat than fatter fat people, although this depends on other intersections such as gender and race. So claiming fat as disabled is complicated, depends on the social context in which people live, it isn't a one size fits all affair. It's also worth pointing out that fat and disabled are not mutually exclusive categories either. There are disabled people who are fat as well as fat people who already think of themselves as disabled. Disability might also be a transient state or a state that people reach with age.

In July of this year the advocate general of the European Court of Justice gave a ruling on a case about employment discrimination involving a fat person using disability as its basis. This echoes cases in the US, described by Sondra Solovay in her book Tipping The Scales of Justice, and on which anti-discrimination law was established in Michigan and a handful of cities. The court found that people with a Body Mass Index of 40 or more could be considered disabled and could therefore be protected against discrimination. Their findings were not binding, but it was recommended that the case be referred to another court for a decision that could be brought in across the European Union. That decision is due any day now.

There are a few things to consider if the ruling passes that fatter people can be classed as disabled:

The main thing is that it would mean an entitlement to rights. In employment, which is the basis of the ruling, it would mean that we would be entitled to 'reasonable adjustments' that ensure work is accessible to us. Here the responsibility to provide an accessible environment shifts to those providing the environment rather than the expectation that fat people should lose weight to fit in. I'm not sure, but perhaps this could be extended to access in public space, for example seating and transport. I think that within this ruling is the implicit acknowledgement that losing weight is not a viable option. Legally recognising some fat people as disabled would also mean that we could, theoretically, claim cases against discrimination and be eligible for compensation. Given the evidence that fat people routinely experience discrimination, including at work, this would be extremely helpful.

I have some concerns, however. Body Mass Index, on which the ruling would be based, is notoriously flawed and, by using it, the court reinforces the idea that it is a valuable 'scientific' way of measuring fat or classifying fat people. There are likely to be cases that could benefit from the ruling but which would be thrown out because the complainant does not have the correct BMI number. I wonder if the ruling might be used to further medicalise fat people, or use ableism to leverage more problematic medical interventions such as weight loss surgery with the aim of producing allegedly able-bodied citizens (I say alleged because surgical complications produce disabled fat people). It will be interesting to see how classifying fat people as disabled affects commercial weight loss organisations, for example, and their public-private partnerships within the NHS and statutory healthcare provision. Would they have less of a claim on the public purse? I was intrigued by Glenn Hayes, an employment partner at the UK law firm Irwin Mitchell, who told The Guardian earlier this year that 'reasonable adjustments' at work could include: "ensuring that healthy meal options are provided at their staff canteen." This seems to me typical of how obesity discourse is likely to become embedded within the ruling, if it passes, to create increasingly fatphobic and coercive environments where, for example, your food choices at work become even more policed and loaded.

The situation for disabled people in the UK at the moment is particularly dire. The government's commitment to cutting social service funding means that to be disabled is to experience extreme social marginalisation. Rhetoric about assisted suicide for disabled people cannot be divorced from the ideology of austerity. This is the context in which fat people's potential legal recognition as disabled will occur. Cuts in Legal Aid might mean that accessing justice is reserved for the rich. I hope that legal recognition will encourage fat people to feel confident and empowered to claim our basic rights and participate in a community of disabled people who are already fighting hard for their lives. But I also wonder if this will further entrench fat identity in abjection, shame, patronage and pity because we won't just be fat now (with the attendant false promise that we could make ourselves normal is we really wanted to) we will be disabled too and therefore presumably beyond hope.

Whatever the ruling, prepare yourselves for a parade of outraged anti-Europe right-wingers in the media spluttering about political correctness gone mad. Joy.

18 December, edited to add:

The court has made its ruling, but it looks unclear.

The European Union's Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that "under particular conditions" fat people can be construed as disabled. The particular conditions are where one's fatness hinders one's participation in common activities, including work compared to other people. It looks as though the court is saying that each case should be judged on its own, it is not proposing that fat people should have protected status.

This is obviously a medical framing of fat and does not draw on a social model of disability. Hence the ruling, as far as I can see, does little to protect against discrimination, and I don't know how people might use it to demand that reasonable adjustments should be made so that spaces are accessible.

Because it is drawing on a medical model, it could be that people who have medical problems or impairments relating to fat could access rights, but even then it is not clear.

It seems quite a weak and wishy-washy ruling, in my opinion, although my legal expertise is minimal. Lawyers talking to the press about the ruling sound more positive and are saying that it's an important step in legally recognising ant-fat discrimination in the workplace.

The case that led to this ruling has not been resolved and will be referred back to the Danish court for a decision on whether or not the plaintiff can be defined as disabled. It will be interesting to see how that plays out and if it will offer a precedent for test cases in the UK and elsewhere.

28 November 2014

Rethinking psychosis, rethinking fat hatred

This week The British Psychological Society published a report called Understanding Psychosis and Schizophrenia. It's free to download and there is a useful article by Dr Jay Watts, Making Space for the Meaning in Madness, which gives it some context and is a much shorter read.

Both pieces cover a lot of ground but for me the takeaway message was that variety in human experience is normal and that medical cures, used without listening to people at the sharp end of things, can be experienced as abusive and counterproductive.

This ethic can be applied to a lot of things. Autism features prominently in my life, for example, and I find the liberation and acceptance narratives that have arisen out of autistic rights activism really compelling. Although there remains a resarch community invested in proposing physiological causes of being gay, as a queer I can see what happens when people largely relinquish medicalisation, and where other forms of framing concerning identity and experience are enabled. People flourish.

It's not hard to make the connection here to fat. This week weight loss surgery was mandated by statutory bodies in the UK for many more people at lower weights. The authorities think that it will be cost-effective in the long term regarding how Type 2 Diabetes is managed. These surgeries are risky, have mixed results and exist within a context of devastating fatphobic rhetoric. I see the effects of this with clients in my therapy room every week and it is neither cost effective nor supports people's well-being in the long term. As far as I can see the institutions making these proposals offer no critical reflection on the value of these interventions and discourse. The proposers may have a financial or professional stake in offering them. User voices are absent. Surgery is now being considered the only possible route that can be taken to look after fat people's health, which itself is becoming synonymous with Diabetes.

If people with experience of psychosis who have been profoundly oppressed by trauma and medicalisation can organise for social change and influence a community of sympathetic and radical health practitioners on a large scale, why not fat people? Medical institutions, and the world in general, is much farther away from understanding fat people as a viable social group that is being harmed by what is presumed to be the cure. This applies to us too, fat people are barely organised and we suffer intensely from a shame that often prevents us from taking action, as well as marginal social positioning at our intersections. Because of a decades long war on obesity it is difficult for all of us to frame fatness as part of the diversity of human embodiment.

I hope that this will change in time and that fat activists will be able to make use of, contribute towards and expand upon, for example, the ideas of the mental health survivors' and autistic rights movements among many others. Some of us are mental health system survivors, some are autistic, some of us are already involved in activism. But at the moment fat activism is a scavenged affair, using and remodelling the vital work of other liberationists, and always very tentatively. Many fat people feel that we have no right to exist, even though we have been part of the fabric of humanity since the dawn of time. Fat activism is the perpetual newbie as a social movement and I suspect it will be a long time until we are able to offer theory and blueprints for change to share with others.

10 November 2014

SWAGGA: dancing at SPILL

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. We debuted a version of this piece in June 2014. Kay Hyatt is my partner and co-dancer.

Photo by Katarzyna Perlak

We did SWAGGA again. We were selected to perform at SPILL, which is a festival of performance that takes place in Ipswich, a large town in the East of the UK. We spent a four week period preparing for two performances. This entailed meeting to dance, working out practical details, with lots of talking and wondering on top of that. We met at Dance Research Studio in North London, a beautiful space run by Jacky Lansley. Here are some reflections on what that process entailed.

It feels remarkable that we were able to make that space our own during this time. It's a dance studio, with wooden floors, white walls, with evidence of dance culture: a piano, musculoskeletal posters, objects on which you can bash out a rhythm. There is nowhere really to sit, it's a space in which movement takes place. In our breaks we perched on a futon, on a stair, on the piano stool. It's not a weight loss clinic waiting room or a fat activist workshop space, there are no concessions though perhaps there are assumptions. We have worked with getting up and down on the floor and I am somewhat preoccupied with it. Ultimately I do it and am able enough. I see this as part of the work we have been doing, noticing movement, having a go at things, working through trepidation. Together we have made a space where awkward physicality is welcome.

When I think about how Alex and Jamila work with us I can't believe how lucky I am. They are firm and confident as creative workers, they treat us with a lot of respect, they guide and mentor us carefully, they bring their politics and hearts to the work, they are patient and loving. The relationship sometimes feels quite holy and parental, even though I'm twenty years older than them and at least twice their size. I feel as though I am really thriving in their care. It's great when they're full of joy and gleeful, I just want to make them happy if I can.

In one session we watched a video recording of our performance in June. I had been apprehensive about watching it because I knew that I would feel overwhelmed at seeing myself dance and maybe overly critical. Alex and Jamila were gentle and supportive. There was a dissonance in what I saw and how I remembered it feeling. I thought I moved more quickly and with more dynamism. Perhaps this is a feature of being a fat dancer, you feel the interior of your skeleton and muscles moving in a particular way, and your flesh sort of catches up. I don't know, I'm almost loathed to say that because it feels uncomfortably close to an idea of a thin person within, an idea that I reject in favour of a more holistic fat embodiment. Perhaps there are other theories.

Watching myself dance set off a series of reflections about what it is to dance. I realised that I'd assumed that dance is a finite number of movements, that a body with a head, two arms and two legs, hands and feet, can move a lot, but that its actions are ultimately limited and that these limits have been mapped by dancers and choreographers who have come before us. This isn't true. In thinking of dance in this way I'd internalised a load of rubbish about good dance being a knowledge and mastery of those movements. Maybe some of it is, but not the kind I'm doing. When I thought of dance in this way I often felt as though I was not and could never be good enough. I'd continually construct the dancer as someone else, not me. Someone else is younger, thin, fitter, uninjured, flexible, fast, mobile, agile. The Perfect One who shames me. Jamila said that accepting your body and its movements is the work of dancing and I've found this very helpful in allowing my body to move in its own way, and in developing that movement, really inhabiting my own body. Sometimes it can be very hard and frustrating work, other times not so much. The work brings many rewards in the form of self-knowledge, self-compassion, confidence and delight in my own body. I listened to and felt, with pleasure, my internal organs sloshing around and rearranging themselves as I stood up from lying on the floor, for example. I felt like a miracle. I may move in ways that are recognisable to and replicable by others, but what I have is my own.

I was nervous before each practise, but this diminished as time went on and disappeared completely before the performances; I was really ready when the time came. Kay and I talked about how dance has been a consistent encounter with shame. Shame is what we work through in order to dance, and shame is how we experience oppression as fat people, as dykes, as working class women, and so on. Shame is the unsurprising response to a decade-plus of obesity epidemic rhetoric. We understand that our bodies are not suppose to be autonomous, creative, expressive, organisms that contribute positively to the world. Yet here we are. When we dance we are aware of this, we feel it and we do what we can to refuse the idea that dance is not for the likes of us and our allegedly worthless bodies and lives. We are finding out what happens on the other side, the side without shame. It feels pretty amazing to experience shamelessness is all I can say at the moment.

The piece that we performed in June looked sort of similar to the SPILL version, but the feeling behind some of the movement changed, and that gave it a different flavour. People still ask me what it's about and I still struggle to say. It's dance, it's about whatever you want it to be about. It's a performance that invites feeling, it's a spectacle, I have particular feelings when I perform in it too. For example, we've been working with a sensibility of 'motherfuckerliness,' for want of a better term, a swagger. I feel brawny, giant and powerful when I connect physically to this quality. I got big bruises on my arm where I accidentally whipped myself. It feels a long way away from fat representation that is about beauty or being 'just as good as thin people'. I don't want a place at the table, fuck the table. Gender was a lot more relevant to me this time, women are really not supposed to present like this. On the night before the performance Kay and I went out to eat and sat next to a table where three normatively-sized women in their early 30s, one of whom was pregnant, body-policed themselves, each other and pretty much everyone they talked about. It was dreadful, their struggle for normativity so painful to witness. I imagined that we were pitiable objects to these women, I wondered what they would have seen had they come to the performance. I felt that what we are doing with SWAGGA is vital and life-affirming in the face of all this.

It turns out that this is true. Mathilda Gregory was also performing at SPILL She wrote a blog post, The Elephant in the Room, about that and about what it meant to her to see SWAGGA. I remembered shaking my tits at her aggressively during the show, and her excellent response. I found Mathilda's writing hard to read because I was so touched by it. She is right, we are good to look at! Fancy that! It is fucking fabulous to perform, especially to other fat women because we need each other so badly. This is absolutely where I want to be.

SWAGGA continues to be developed. We are looking at a residency in the spring, some public events, and then performances in London over summer 2015. There may be more, we don't know yet, but I will keep writing and reflecting about it here.

03 October 2014

Research: weight loss makes you feel terrible, no surprises there

Research evidence is often presented in fat activism as part of the armoury to be used in fighting fatphobia. It's an important resource for those who are interested in debating with institutional fatphobes. I tend not to report mainstream stuff because that's not where my interests lie, and because I find most research (except that modelled on Research Justice) dull to read and largely irrelevant to my daily life.

Today I am making an exception! This is partly because I was so surprised to see this particular study from the UK get reported by a professional organisation, of which I am a member, that frequently supports fatphobia.

The piece appeared in PLOS ONE, an open access academic journal that charges people to be published. It has the catchy title of 'Psychological Changes following Weight Loss in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Prospective Cohort Study' and has been produced by a team consisting of Sarah E. Jackson, Andrew Steptoe, Rebecca J. Beeken, Mika Kivimaki and Jane Wardle.

At first it looks like a pretty conventional examination of 'obesity': the language, research methods, dissemination of results and general feel of it are extremely trad. they are interested in psychological aspects of weight loss because there is conflicting research evidence about it. But the study has come up with a less-than conventional result.

These researchers reported some health benefits to weight loss in their sample (large but limited to older white people), but also found that weight loss offers no psychological benefits.

"However, there was no evidence that weight loss was associated with improved psychological wellbeing. In fact, significantly more of the weight loss group than the groups who were weight stable or gained weight had depressed mood at follow-up, and at least in some of the adjusted analyses, more had low wellbeing."

There are important limitations to this study. The tools the researchers used to asses people's psychological status are, in my opinion, quite clumsy and don't account much for people's contexts and shifting subjectivities. I don't know who funded this research, which would have important implications for its interpretation; was it funded by the weight loss industry, for example? The authors also concede that their results are correlational, so it's also possible that weight loss does not cause low mood, that the correlation is just one of those things.

The authors discuss some of the reasons why they think they got these particular results, but for the most part seem quite surprised. My assumption would be that the main psychological benefits of weight loss are about becoming normative: literally being able to fit in and avoiding the spectrum of disapproval to hate that is directed towards fat people. This is likely to have health benefits. I did find one comment interesting, the authors remark: "One possible explanation for the difference is that the mood improvements in clinical trials are a consequence of the supportive treatment context rather than weight loss per se." It's not the weight loss that helps you feel good, it's being treated as a legitimate person, or even being treated nicely, which weight loss proponents are now adopting (eg, see interest in 'weight stigma' by those still invested in a weight loss paradigm for health).

I don't know if the authors of the study have any involvement at all with fat community or know any fat people, or are fat themselves. The language of the piece makes fat people very distant from the research, we are here as the usual passive, abstract entities. It could be that the researchers are flying under the radar and want to publish something quite radical without arousing too much suspicion. Yet they write: "We had expected that by restricting our a sample to participants who were overweight or obese at baseline, evidence of adverse psychological effects of weight loss would disappear." They fully expected weight loss to be a good thing. This implies to me that they have little knowledge of critical approaches to weight loss, indeed they don't cite anything that would demonstrate their understanding that a critical body of work exists. To me, this makes it interesting that they should make these findings, they're not influenced by a critical body of work. At the same time, they refer to a study that uses the concept of "community obese," which might imply that they know that we group together!

As usual, it is really maddening to this reader that obesity researchers don't actually talk to and work with the people they are researching. Fat people have powerful lived experience that would make this study, and all the others, come alive if only we were regarded as legitimate producers of knowledge. Hey research squares! We're the ones with the answers! Coo-ee! Pay attention to us!

Perhaps this study reveals that, despite the hard sell of transformation embedded in weight loss, there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when you have lost weight, especially if you're getting on a bit. Samantha Murray has spoken publicly about becoming more aware of how much fat people are hated when you lose weight; there may be the reasonable fear of regaining what you have lost; your body might not look like you hoped it would when you had lost weight; you might experience problems associated with weight loss (gall bladder illness, for example); you may have lost fat community; your problems remain.

15 September 2014

Research: new book for Para-Academics

I am very proud to announce that I am part of The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting, edited by Alex Wardrop and Deborah Withers. It has just been published by HammerOn Press.

My chapter is about fat activist community research and is based on my No More Stitch-Ups! project.

This book is very important because it provides practical information and discussion about how people pushed out of ever-more expensive and exclusive higher education might develop their own scholarship. It is closely tied to Research Justice, and anti-oppressive theory and practice. It's about alternative possibilities for academia.

I think this has special relevance for people who want to develop work around fat. Many of us come from backgrounds where accessing academia is out of the question. Talking critically and radically about fat is still a tricky business in universities, I have known more than a few fat scholars who have found themselves at odds with unsympathetic supervisors and conservative departmental cultures. I hope that this book encourages more experimental risk-taking both within and beyond the ivory tower.

More information, including how to get hold of digital and paper copies, at HammerOn Press.

28 July 2014

What could fat activist choreography look like?

SWAGGA introduced me to the idea of a score in relation to dance. As I understand it, a score is kind of like an instruction. It's also a way of describing choreography, like notation. A score can be a bit like a poem and exist in its own right.

I co-created scores as SWAGGA was being developed and made notes of them. Over the past couple of weeks I went to a couple of this guy Hamish McPherson's events, called All The Things That We Can Do. I wrote a score for someone taking a shower, to answer a question about what dirt means. Someone else wrote a score for me too. We danced our showers!

Scores are on my mind. I've been thinking about what choreographic scores for fat people, fat activists, might look like. As an experiment, here are some choreographic ideas for fat activists to improvise with. I thought about physicality; protest and agency; historicising fat activism and community as general themes. They can be danced solo or in a group (the third one is intended for a group). They can be long or short, repeated or not repeated, adapted for people's physical limitations and specialities. There can be music but I don't know what it is. The temptation would be for some pop culture thing that references fat; it would be good if people went for something that isn't corny or overexposed.

It would be a dream come true to see people doing and/or performing these scores, or developing others, maybe recording them, making them public. Would you like to have a go? How could this happen?

Fat Activist Score 1

Change the air around you by being.
Smack your thighs together, whomp fat against itself, against hands, against other parts of the body, against flat objects if you want to, but do not hurt yourself.
Create sweat and heat, warm up the place.
Stamp if you can, like Godzilla, Flabzilla, like a T-Rex, the Terminator or a Transformer. Create earthquakes.
Aim to make the building shake as you move.
If you have hair or clothes you can swish, swish them.
Aim for people to feel your presence without you touching them.
Allow yourself to vocalise your breath as you move.

Fat Activist Score 2

Make eye contact. Use your body to let people know that you are looking at them. Use gestures. Point. Look without shame. See.
Head shaking and other forms of saying no, refusing, interrupting and stopping things.
If the gaze is directed at you, move into it, make the most of it, give people something to look at.
Pay attention to the parts of the body where there is pain. Show what pain looks like. Tend to the pain, tend to others' pain.
Stop and rest. Start again.

Fat Activist Score 3

A group of people arranged in either a circle, a line, a square, a recognisable form of some kind. Standing, sitting, a mixture.
An originator makes a gesture and it is passed along, it moves back and forth. You can see it passing back and forth. People are still when they are not gesturing.
Another originator makes another gesture and, again, it moves back and forth in the group.
The gesture might pick up speed, people might lose interest in it and it becomes forgotten and lost.
Originators make more gestures which move through the group. Sometimes the gestures are adapted as they move. There are many gestures and many movements. Sometimes it gets really confusing.
An originator reinstates a gesture that was lost.
An originator invokes a gesture that they did not originate as though it belongs to them.
Different parts of the group become preoccupied with particular gestures and they do not move far, they stay. The group fractures along these lines.
The dance ends as the shape falls apart and everyone is caught up in the gestures, sometimes moving synchroniously with others, sometimes moving alone with their own gestures and original movements.

11 July 2014

Anti-obesity campaigns: making WLS inevitable

I woke to the news that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, part of the British government's Department of Health, wants thousands of people to have gastric bands in order to prevent the National Health Service paying for diabetes treatment.

Dear NICE,

It is 6.30 in the morning and I am burning when I should be dozing.

You are slime.

I just want to call you names because I am so angry.

Let's talk about treating fat people with diabetes but let's not pretend that you have found a risk-free, health-enhancing way of enabling people to lose weight, or that weight loss is The Answer to Everything.

Instead let's talk about your treatment of fat people as guinea pigs and scapegoats.

Or the conflation of fat and diabetic.

Or pre-diabetes.

Or the obesity epidemic.

Or how fat people "cause climate chaos".

Or food addiction.

Or how fat people are responsible for The Deficit.

Or the need to tax sugary things.

Or The Children.

Or obesogenic environments.

Or the thousand other bullshit ways that hatred is leveraged to reconstitute and dehumanise fat people in the public eye through fatphobia, and how this affects a population's health.

You have no idea how difficult it is to access adequate healthcare if you are fat. That fat people's lives – probably including mine – are shortened by fatphobic 'care,' aka iatrogenesis, is the real scandal here. It is really hard to be healthy in a culture whose major institutions and centres of medical excellence want to obliterate you.

Now you have made it a lot worse.

A gastric band is a surveillance device. You throw up what the band decides is superfluous. Your body then eats itself because you are really really hungry. This is how you lose weight.

This government loves surveillance.

But like all surveillance, people inevitably find a way around it. It is a faulty surveillance device. It doesn't make diseased fat people into healthy thin people, it makes people have really fucked-up relationships with food and it causes the kinds of problems you would imagine would be caused if a major organ was messed with. Surgery is a relatively recent intervention and it is hard to know long-term outcomes. It's a gamble. It doesn't keep people thin. People still regain weight after a band has been installed. Diabetic people too. What then?

Gastric bands further medicalise people, including those with diabetes, for the rest of their lives. How does this save the NHS money?

I cannot believe that you would mandate more weight loss surgery. You want to invest in something that is entirely duff and requires expensive and risky procedures to install.

You want to invest in this rubbish instead of no-risk, cheap, community-based health promotion rooted in Heath At Every Size. Models that have success records, that fat people are happy to engage with because they/we are seen as agentic authors of our own lives with lived expertise to offer.

It makes no sense at all. Whose sponsorship is behind this decision? Who is making money out of this? What further crap will this recommendation inspire?

With horror,

Disgusted of E15

PS. Insert Headless Fatty here.

07 July 2014

Fat activism and tattoos

On Saturday around noon my girlfriend and I went and got tattoos.

It wasn't my first, that one was in 1996. I'm hardly covered but every now and then I'll go under the needle. I like it, the pain feels good, I enjoy the rush afterwards as well as having a picture on my skin. I have one tattoo that I might do differently with hindsight but I've never regretted them, they remind me of things that I don't want to forget.

We got matching tattoos, which is really lezzie, but the subject matter has other stuff going on. In 2004 someone who will be known here as Yeti, unless they want me to name them, and someone else known as Big Blu designed a symbol for a fictitious girl gang project that I was stirring up called The Chubsters. This symbol became known as the Screaming C: a fat letter C, with fangs dripping blood. To me it symbolised the fat person who bites back; a refusal; a snarl. The Screaming C has been deployed in various ways over the years, as graffiti, as embroidery, as doodles, even as stonemasonry. It's a fantastic symbol. As a project The Chubsters is more or less played-out, though a web archive is on the way. But that symbol endures, I think about it often.

Alice works on my skin
We got Screaming Cs tattooed on our hips. I'd been hemming and hawing about it for a while. I'm aware that my tattoos further position me as a marginal person in many people's eyes. I've been reading news stories lately by tattoo haters about how getting tattooed is akin to self-harm. Nice girls don't get tattooed. This is precisely the reason why I went ahead: I'm not and don't want to be a nice girl.

We didn't pretty-up the artwork, we used the original drawings as source material and our tattooist, Alice at Divine Canvas, was faithful to it. It looks like someone has taken a biro and scratched it onto us, which is not so far from what actually happened. The blood droplets are red.

I realised on the day that so much of today's tattoo aesthetic is about prettiness, 'a work of art on your skin,' an inflated idea of art, or 'good art,' taste, which of course is all about class and cultural capital (knowing what the 'right' art is, for example). I like bad art, cruddiness, things that are bodged together. I don't care so much about prettiness. It's one of those things that I conflate with being nice: "nice and pretty". This is not what I'm looking for in life.

My favourite tattoos on other people are ones that would be deemed crap: the group of friends who got a banana tattooed because it was only a tenner; a wonky Siouxsie Sioux; dots made with a sewing needle and ink; a friend who has a cartoon penis and fanny tattooed on her ankles; a pal who has a devil with the words 'Not sorry' underneath, and so on. It's no coincidence that these tattoos are always the cheapest ones in the shop, or homemade, they don't cost the equivalent of a small car.

Having a Screaming C tattoo feels like part of the work of feeling at home in my body as a fat person; it's playful, silly, has meaning and is nothing more than what it is. It felt freeing committing to a tattoo that is not about high-minded aesthetics but is connected to something more basic.

Anyway, getting our tattoos was a lot of fun, not very expensive, and now they are healing nicely and I'm looking forwards to flashing mine from time to time. Some people said that they also wanted to get Screaming C tattoos. I'd rather they went for something more original than copying my tattoo, but it's up to them what they do. The experience has made me think of other fat activists and their tattoos, and it's led me to wonder about fat activist tattoo aesthetics.

I hope commenters will chip in with their own thoughts and pictures, but at the moment it seems to me that a fat activist tattoo often has one or more of the following qualities: cute renditions of junk food; slogans, especially Riots not Diets, inspirational quotes; vintage-cute renditions of fat figures, maybe cartoons, or traditional Western tattoo culture figures (they might have names that I don't know); fat animals, pigs, whales, cows, manatees and so on. Fat activist tattoos are placed on parts of the body that are coded as problematic in the rhetoric of weight loss: bellies, thighs, fat rolls are popular. A theme emerges where fat and tattoos converge where bodies are embellished by flowers, the natural world, sea creatures; these symbols beautify bodies that are reclaimed from, for example, medicalisation and fatphobia, with love that has been hard-fought in many cases, they say to me something like: "My fat body is beautiful and worth beautifying."

Obligatory dodgy tattoo selfie with added flowery knickers
So where might this go? I don't want to yuck anybody's yum, I wish power to all fat people and their beloved tattoos, but what happens if a tattoo is not necessarily about being beautiful? What happens if tattoos undermine discourses of beauty? What might happen if fat activists question the trend towards cuteness? What's that cuteness about anyway? What might a fat activist tattoo - or aesthetic more generally - develop into? A tattoo of a raised fat fist? A trashed set of scales? A broken chair? The cover of Shadow on a Tightrope? I want to see more of this stuff! Fat activists, unleash your imaginations, it's only skin after all.

25 June 2014

Conference Report: Allied Media Conference 2014, Detroit

I went to Detroit. I first went to the city in 2001 and this was my fifth or sixth visit to the place. Detroit is changing. There is still a lot of poverty, there are still ruins, but a demolition programme, the shutting down of essential services, including water and sewage, is forcing social cleansing on a massive scale. There are now areas of gentrification that would have almost been unthinkable 13 years ago. Detroit, a city of working class black people, is becoming a magnet for gentrifiers who consider it a new frontier. The city's problems are both unique to Detroit and an indication of what is happening in neoliberal cities elsewhere. I was struck many times during my visit by the similarities between Detroit and where I live in East London. I love both places.

Here are some snapshots from my trip:

a) My friend Amanda Piasecki met up with my love and I and we hung out for the weekend. A fat guy passing by laughed openly at us squeezing out of the small car I had rented. "That's a tiny car!" he spluttered. "Yes it is!" we replied.

b) Amanda gave me this really big badge. The woman on it looks familiar to me, who is she? Someone from the early days of NAAFA? I like how plain and unglamorous she looks, like a fat hippy or a student. The badge says "Made in Hong Kong" in tiny letters on the side, which dates it, I think, to the late 1960s or early 1970s, when Hong Kong was exporting cheap manufactured goods to the US. I think it's amazing that this badge exists at all. Historic fat culture. What a gift! Thanks Amanda.

c) I got to see some Midwestern fat friends and to eat at the wonderful fat and queer-friendly Bona Sera café in Ypsilanti. I felt nourished by Bad Fairy's grits and the homemade gelato on the menu as well as the conversation and camaraderie. We talked about fat community, class, stupid stuff too. I often feel the burn of community, but this was not one of those times.

d) The Grand River Creative Corridor at Core City has some stunning street art, including this, which inspires a lot of feelings in me. I have no fondness at all for Captain America, so I'm always glad to see him as a satirical object. I get that he is representing a broken dream of America, he's painted on a wall in a run-down area bordering a more gentrified neighbourhood. Perhaps this painting heralds the start of more gentrification. His fatness here is complicated. It's a product of fast food consumption, I recognise a fatphobic and patronising view of Detroit as a food desert and am mindful of how this rhetoric is used to leverage the presence of gentrifying corporations (a Whole Foods – an upmarket supermarket – has recently opened not so far away). I read this fat as weak, bloated, abjected. It reeks of fat panic. I wonder who painted it, are they fat? What does it mean to see a depiction of fatness like this in such a fat city?

e) We went to see the fantastic band Speaker for the Dead at the Trumbullplex, an anarchist house and venue. One of the band's members is called Charlie V. Stern and they are a stand-up comic as well as an accordionist. They did a set and began with this line: "Your Mama... your Mama she's so fat that no one can look her in the eye because we live in a fucked up sizeist and ablest society". I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I was probably the fattest in the room, Stern is not particularly fat but maybe identifies as fat, I don't know. I was amazed that fat activist discourse could have filtered in to a right-on joke by a stand-up in an anarchist performance space. I thought: "Things are changing."

One of Beryl-Elise Hoffstein's illustrations.
f) I went to visit the Joseph A. Labadie Collection at the university of Michigan, which is open access, meaning that members of the public can go and look at things for free. The Labadie is a collection of radical left archival material, including papers, journals, magazines, ephemera, t-shirts, badges, all kinds of things. There is a lot of queer stuff in there. Their holdings on fat are not excessive, but they did have a beautifully preserved copy of the Proceedings of the First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting, April 18-20 1980, New Haven CT. This was a report prepared by Judith Stein, and illustrated by Beryl-Elise Hoffstein. It was distributed by Fat Liberator Publications. I found this document very moving to read, so many of the concerns of 1980 are relevant today. It was also funny and full of spark, for example "Goals and Priorities for the Fat Liberation Movement" include: "build a feminist fat culture;" "burn Jean Neiditch (head of Weight Watchers) in effigy;" "have public demonstrations of fat people's strength and endurance;" "Defence squad against hassles (Fat Terrorist Society)" – sounds a bit like The Chubsters to me.

g) I went to Detroit to attend the Allied Media Conference (AMC). This is an annual affair dedicated to grassroots social justice media-based organising. Yes, that's a mouthful. It's a really big conference, with many workshops, practise spaces, panels, performances, delegates and things to blow your mind. Some of these things are convened under 'tracks,' special collections of sessions on a particular theme. I was interested in several of these tracks but the ones most relevant to this post are Research Justice and Abundant Bodies Media. You can read notes and Tweets from the sessions via the AMC website.

We drew a cartoon illustrating research injustice
and research justice
I attended the Research Justice Network Gathering, a mini-conference that took place before the main event. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been getting interested in decolonising obesity research and that I used RJ principles in the project No More Stitch-Ups! Developing Media Literacy Through Fat Activist Community Research. The Network Gathering was a powerful reminder of the political nature of research, and a call to action in creating more just and inclusive methodologies. I came away from the gathering with a firmer understanding of the harm that obesity research injustice causes, and a commitment to develop harm reduction strategies around that stuff. I found it very helpful to think of this work taking place within a wider agenda calling for accountability, it can be very alienating doing this work, it's good to know that those of us who do it are not alone.

Abundant Bodies Media is the first time there has been a dedicated fat track at the AMC. This is somewhat surprising to me since the conference has a strong healing Justice presence and there are many fat people in attendance. The eight sessions in the track focussed on creative practice, inclusive community-building, sexuality, intersectional bodily autonomy, anti-assimilationist and online fat activism. Not bad! It was exciting to participate as a panellist and a presenter, working with groups of younger fat activists, a mixture of those new to the movement and more seasoned players.

I understand that not everybody had as positive an experience of the track as me. There were problems with accessible seating throughout, and getting around the conference venues was not straightforward. Although the AMC is a radical and visionary space, fat politics remain marginal and unknown to many of its participants, some of whom tried to discredit the track and its participants. This echoes the ongoing problem of fatphobia in the left, a subject I've written about previously. I witnessed these interactions, for example: when I mentioned the track to someone in an interview they said that they hoped it would focus on healthy eating; another person did not understand the rationale for a session and lectured some of us on the causes of obesity, framing us as pathological in the process. The AMC is an overwhelming experience at the best of times and people were often absent, me included, trying to cram in as much as possible across all of the tracks. This meant that Abundant Bodies Media, and probably other tracks too, tended to feel fragmented and it was hard to build a solid activism base.

Despite the problems in putting together an inaugural track, I hope that Abundant Bodies Media will continue. It was well-curated and shows that there is clearly a hunger for a fat presence in this radical space. There are bound to be glitches as the track gets going, developing community takes time and hard work. Whether or not people have the energy to invest in this remains to be seen, but I want to leave this post now by quoting the Allied Media Projects Network Principles in full, because they are really powerful, full of hope, and might offer those involved some kind of comfort for the work that lies ahead.

Allied Media Projects Network Principles

"We are making an honest attempt to solve the most significant problems of our day.

We are building a network of people and organizations that are developing long-term solutions based on the immediate confrontation of our most pressing problems.

Wherever there is a problem, there are already people acting on the problem in some fashion. Understanding those actions is the starting point for developing effective strategies to resolve the problem, so we focus on the solutions, not the problems.

We emphasise our own power and legitimacy.

We presume our power, not our powerlessness.

We spend more time building than attacking.

We focus on strategies rather than issues.

The strongest solutions happen through the process, not in a moment at the end of the process.

The most effective strategies for us are the ones that work in situations of scarce resources and intersecting systems of oppression because those solutions tend to be the most holistic and sustainable.

Place is important. For the AMC, Detroit is important as a source of innovative, collaborative, low-resource solutions. Detroit gives the conference a sense of place, just as each of the conference participants bring their own sense of place with them to the conference.

We encourage people to engage with their whole selves, not just with one part of their identity.

We begin by listening."

12 June 2014

SWAGGA: opening night

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. We gave a public performance of this piece at Rich Mix on 7 June in London, together with a piece by Alex and Jamila called Benz Punany. Kay Hyatt is my partner and co-dancer.

Two dancers, after.
The silly season has started, not that it ever goes away where fat is concerned. There are many things I could say about whether or not I think fat is a disability, today's subject for fatphobic hand-wringing, but I'll save that for another time. You could read my book (Fat and Proud: The Politics of Size, which goes into it somewhat), or this ancient article too, I still agree with a lot of what I wrote and thought 17 years ago.

What I really want to write about today is SWAGGA. We had our debut and I am still cruising on a high from that. It's a while since I've felt this sustained from doing something. Nearly a week has passed and the messages of congratulations are still coming in. Today DIVA magazine published this excellent review by Charlotte Richardson Andrews: Project O Goes Large: SWAGGA and Benz Punany. What I'm noticing is a sense of unreality when I remember the night, so maybe it would be fruitful to focus on the facts.

The performance sold out. This is unusual for a show with no marketing behind it, just word of mouth, my blogging and a bit of social networking. It wasn't just our friends in the audience either, people we didn't know came. This makes me suspect that audiences are hungry for work like SWAGGA and Benz Punany and will show up for it. The audience was diverse, there were lots of people there who don't usually go to see dance. Arts organisations, take notice of this and commission us for more!

When I think of the dancing I remember a busy day of practising, doing the tech rehearsal, waiting. We had a company warm up, which was really interesting. This was the first time in the whole process that Alex, Jamila, Kay and I had been on a stage together as fellow dancers. I generally feel warm in my body and ready to dance after jigging around and stretching a bit for a couple of songs. This is what I did. Jamila and Alex have much more experience with warming up for a performance and they are experts of the body, their bodies in particular. They went through a range of movements that took some time, it looked meticulous to me and so impressive, yet probably very workaday to them. I find it hard to imagine attending to my body with such focus in a way that isn't bound up with fatphobia, but I would like to be able to inhabit my body with a similar level of directness and concentration, at least from time to time.

The performance itself was a great experience. I loved waiting backstage for the lights to go down, our cue for taking our places on the stage. Even though I was nervous I knew that I was ready for what lay ahead. We did as well as we could, it wasn't a perfect run, it never is, but it was more than good enough. Sometimes people check out when they are performing but I was present on this occasion. There was a lot of applause, we took it shyly.

People were engaged. Afterwards I had conversations about identity politics; how brave I was (I'm not sure how I feel about that, I am brave, but maybe not in the way this person meant); how moved people were, people who cried; people thinking for the first time that dancing is something they might want to do too; how both pieces gave people ways of saying things, permission to say things, that had previously been too difficult to talk about. I saw a lot of delighted faces, there was a great feeling of excitement afterwards, people I don't know very well were hugging and kissing me! My friends brought me flowers. It was an incredible privilege to be a conduit for all of this stuff.

One of the overarching themes of these conversations was something like: "How can you even be there on stage, doing that?" people wanted to know our process, and also how we came to be on the stage, participating in a project like this. What I got from this was a feeling that dance is not for the likes of us, but disbelief that we had somehow managed to squeeze in. I don't think this was a malicious sentiment at all, though maybe it would be with other audiences. I think it is a product of how fat hatred (and racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, all of which are also part of SWAGGA and Benz Punany) makes people's lives small and diminishes prospects and possibilities for people. It is electrifying when people refuse that impoverished social positioning, it's as though it wakes others up from a trance. Of course we belonged there on that stage! Why wouldn't we?!

Another thing that people said to me was: "I bet you're really fit now." This ties in to the relationship between dance and weight loss culture. Fat people dance to lose weight, dance is sometimes framed as a means through which unruly bodies become 'disciplined.' I have no idea if I am fitter as a result of dancing. I feel exactly the same, ache and sweat the same, feel as asthmatic as I ever do. My clothes fit the same. The main difference that I have noticed is that I feel less fearful of my body and its ability to move than I did at the beginning.

There will be more SWAGGA but I can't say where or when just yet. We are just beginning. I am also beginning as a dancer. I need to find my people and the places where I can be. I looked at some dance classes this week and so many stipulate that "a reasonable level of fitness is required" without explaining what that means. I imagine it doesn't mean people like me. Their loss.

06 June 2014

SWAGGA: unassimilated fatness

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. Kay Hyatt is my partner and co-dancer.

Last rehearsal, Alex took this picture
We perform tomorrow and every now and again I think of myself as a cartoon with a giant exclamation point in the thought bubble above my head. I am nervous and excited. I can't wait to show what we have to people. I feel really privileged to be opening the show for Benz Punany. To be part of the world of Project O is a dream come true.

On Monday we did a test run in front of three friends and the response was very positive. Alex videoed the session and we watched it yesterday. This is the first time I have seen myself dancing and it is quite hard to articulate what this means to me.

The fact that I can watch myself dancing strikes me as significant; I felt some panic rising, but I was able to talk myself down and I understand my ability to do this this as a product of years of work. Seeing myself was useful in terms of thinking of what I need to do in the piece, where the movement might need to go. Kay and I noticed that the feelings we had whilst dancing and watching were pretty aligned – what we see is how we experience the dance – and this feels encouraging.

A big part of watching was seeing that I am really very fat! There are others who are fatter, but I have plenty of fat of my own. I like how other fat people look and I know that I look like them, but I don't have much of a sense of how I actually look, even though I don't shy away from photos or mirrors. It's bizarre that being really very fat should be a revelation at this stage in my life, but there it is. I think of my fatness in the video and in the dance as unassimilated. The dance is not pretty and my fatness is not contained, respectable, veiled, hinted at, flattered, cordoned off or made nice, it is undeniably there. I'm often plodding, huffing, red-faced, sagging, stiff, awkward. When I look at my fatness I also see class, gender, disability, age, marginalisation. I am presenting my unassimilated fat body for an audience to look at and have whatever response they're going to have and I will probably learn something from this. It's a different kind of selfie.

What is a dancer supposed to be like?
My surprise at my own fatness touches an internalised self-hatred that is very deep, a basic part of my identity as a fat person which threads in and out of my life. It is this: how can anyone bear me? I am under no illusion about the extent to which fat people are profoundly hated in 21st century western cultures. I also know that I am a worthwhile person, a success in some spheres, I know that I am loved. Here I am, monstrously fat. How can anyone even look at me, let alone treat me as human, or as a dancer, as a person who deserves respect? I am forced to deal with a load of fatphobic shit daily, but I'm puzzled about why I don't get more of it.

Perhaps I'm protected in spite of being very fat because of the work that I and many others have done. We have started the difficult task of making a world for ourselves. That people don't run away when they see me could be down to their indifference about fat, maybe it doesn’t really matter, or people can cope with more than I think. My whiteness and education protects me from quite a bit of crap. Perhaps most people keep their fatphobic thoughts to themselves and it's only occasionally that it crosses over into action. Sadly/luckily I'm not a mind reader.

As I watched myself dancing on a screen I wasn't sure what I might do with this 'self-seeing'. We had a break afterwards and Kay and I went to the supermarket to get a snack. I tried to embody that monstrously fat self that I saw onscreen as an experiment in the supermarket, to see what people would do around me, and how I might feel. Nobody screamed or ran, nobody noticed, but inside I felt big, powerful, able to walk without feeling that I should be less of me. It was funny to notice this feeling. I was a monster buying a box of falafel. I thought about all the other monsters in the world, doing their thing.

Rehearsing at Rich Mix
One of the themes that has emerged through SWAGGA is about being appalling. I often appal people because I don't behave in the ways they have circumscribed for me; what they can imagine for me is not expansive. My sense of monstrousness is likely to stir up some of those feelings and responses in people. I feel ambivalent about this, I gotta be me but not everyone can handle that. I love being powerful, it's exciting to play with unassimilated monstrous fatness, and I'm also wondering about how I might use that power as I move through the world.

All this makes me feel even more certain that what we are doing with SWAGGA, and the Project O Goes Large double bill with Benz Punany, is very powerful. It is sophisticated and beautiful, it presents many intersections, multiple layers, with space for lots of different interpretations. The four of us are very daring in working with our differences and we have been so richly rewarded because of these leaps and because we are already strong in who we are. This convinces me even more that mixing things up is the way to go and that, where identity is concerned, I have little desire to pursue cultural work or activism that is rooted in purity, safe space, monoculture or fear.

Fat and dancing and life and everything
SWAGGA has begun
SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame
SWAGGA opening night happened!

19 May 2014

SWAGGA: fat dancing, bodies, watching and shame

This post is part of an on-going series about the experience of becoming a dancer who is also fat, old and becoming disabled. Project O is the umbrella organisation, owned by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, who are choreographing and directing us. SWAGGA is the name of the piece we are developing together. Kay Hyatt is my partner and co-dancer.

Jamila made a trailer full of whip cracks, strange rooms, wigs, deranged delights. I love it!

Project O Goes Large trailer from Project O.

Ha! I can't believe that's us!

It's hard to put this project into words. I suspect it will take me a long time to process what is happening. Mostly it feels pleasurably overwhelming and preoccupying. It's opening channels that I couldn't have imagined before, not in a traumatic way, but by helping to put pieces of the puzzle of body, identity and marginalisation together. Here are some notes from the story so far.


My body has held up, mostly. This was a big concern before we started. I get tired, but it is ok. Sometimes I ache afterwards, but not as much as I thought I might. When I am a physical being, I realise that I have internalised so much rubbish about what a fat person is or can be. This is: a medicalised body in need of immediate, terrible, invasive interventions; someone who could die at any minute from a heart attack or seizure of some kind; a passive blob; a body on the edge; a wrong body; an assemblage of pathologies; a profoundly fragile body. It is about a pernicious fear that has been engendered through fatphobic discourse, which I see in many fat people.

What I'm finding out, at 45 years old, is that I just have a body and that it is good at some things, average at many things and not so good at other things. The reality of my body as I experience it when dancing is that it is unusual in some ways, but also really ordinary. I sweat and I get fatigued. The other thing is how closely it is connected to my ideas, experiences, how subtly it picks up on surroundings, how sensitive and reflective it is, how expressive. This is immensely reassuring and helps me look at and inhabit my body with equanimity and, often, delight. My body is me, I'm not a disembodied floating pair of eyeballs after all.

I am grateful to Alex and Jamila for inviting Kay and I into a space where this stuff can be explored as part of a broader creative process. It feels like an incredibly lucky break but saying that erases who we are and how we found each other. When I think about it, it's more a story of feminism, generosity, anti-racism, openness, hope, reaching-out, trying something new, courage, work, persistence, listening, mutual delight. These qualities have not sprung from nothing, they're a part of us and how we are in the world, they inform the dynamics with which we work.

What are we doing?

At the beginning of this I thought I knew what dancing was but now I'm not so sure. I thought it was about steps, rhythm, virtuosity, craftsmanship(sic), an ideal body of some kind. Last week I went to a symposium for Dad Dancing. This is a piece of work convened by Alex, Rosie Heafford and Helena Webb, a multi-layered project that creates dance works with fathers and their children. To me, it develops exciting ideas around dance and amateurishness, and offers a feminist re-reading of power in the family. Alex said that Dad Dancing came about as a result of conversations between the three of them in breaks whilst they were training, talking about how their Dads related and responded to their work. She said that dance training is all about the body, but there's little space for talking about Dads, which I took to mean the dancer's social context.

This reminds me that Jamila and Alex both reassured us at the very start that they think Kay and I are great. This gave me permission not to worry too much about what I brought. I interpret this now as something like: "our dancing is about bringing your socially embedded self to the floor to show what you have through movement that may or may not relate to music or rhythm or steps. You are compelling to watch as you are, virtuoso or not." Today at practise Jamila said that emotion and intention is also an important motivation for the movement. We are improvising scores, where certain things happen at certain times, but there is a general looseness to the thing. All of this makes me feel very free and in my element, not like I'm having to conform to a weird idea of 'dancer' (in my mind: flexible, doing ballet moves or tap, wearing some kind of floaty thing over a unitard).


We talk about watching. Kay and I are being watched closely much of the time, other times Jamila and Alex are doing other work and we work without their gaze. We are aware that we are making a performance for a public audience. Kay and I have witnessed and heard stories about a racialising that goes on when Alex and Jamila perform, which is in turns frustrating, enraging, silencing. We are aware that people who watch us might not know what to do or say about us, in a related but different way that is to do with fat. I have a body that is both socially visible and invisible and doing a dance performance is, for me, about inviting people to watch my body. Yeah, get an eyeful! This is on my terms, as much as it can ever be. Nevertheless, this is a risky thing to do and we expect to hear a lot of crap amidst the good stuff.

Alex asked us how we thought people would take it and I said: "I think they will be delighted". I said this because I know there is a desperate hunger for something else, especially where fat or otherness is concerned. By something else I mean alternative kinds of representation, other possibilities, dreaming, hope. Obesity discourse feels suffocating and people want to breathe and live. I see SWAGGA as oxygen. This is something that can happen, and if this can exist then something else can happen too.


Shame has burned me a couple of times, usually when we are copying moves or images by and of people with athletic or 'poetically thin' bodies. I have spent many years struggling to feel good enough and one of my strategies is to reserve judgment when I look at different kinds of bodies, to allow all bodies to inhabit their own space. Copying a dance on video, or a painting that involves 'better' bodies, pushes my buttons! I get panicked, "My body can't do that!" I feel inadequate and I shut down and feel cross with the world.

When this happened, Jamila gently talked about how I might make my own translation of the video or image, whilst trying as hard as I can to replicate it. I couldn't take that in at the time because I was trying to manage my shame, but a shift happened when I saw her and Alex perform Benz Punany a couple of weeks ago. In part of this piece they danced along to pop videos. They struggled too, and they're Proper Professional Dancers with Dancer Bodies and Dance Training. I realised that the struggle is the thing. It is impossible to keep up, but what is captivating is being able to watch the struggle as it collides with the fantasy portrayed in the video.

This experience has made me think a lot about Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue's series of crocheted banners about their relationship to the art world, Can't/Won't. I think of this as: you don't have to grease the cogs of the sausage machine of the art world or, I now understand, the dance world either. You can make your own translation, or at least aim for that. It can have rough edges or incorporate values that are anathema to the machine. This is something that is part of my own background in DIY cultural work too. The slogans tell the story: WE CAN’T COMPETE, WE WON’T COMPETE, WE CAN’T KEEP UP, WE WON’T KEEP DOWN.

More soon...

05 May 2014

SWAGGA has begun

photo by Katarzyna Perlak

SWAGGA is now underway. Alex and Jamila and Kay and I have met and we have danced. It is happening. Katarzyna Perlak has taken some photographs of us. Tickets for our first performance are available on the Rich Mix site, buy some and tell your friends. It is real. (By the way, Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small are talking about their work this week in Benz Punany: A Lecture. Please come along if you are in London, it's free).

This is what happens: we take off our shoes and warm up. Sometimes this is stretching, sometimes arsing around, sometimes shaking, sometimes a mixture. I'm not really sure what being warmed up should feel like, so sometimes I go through the motions, eventually I start to feel warm, maybe that's what it's about! Alex, usually, sets some parameters for movement, for example showing some pictures, picking evocative words, interacting with an object, using certain kinds of movement in particular spaces. We will have a go at this and see what happens, improvising all the time. Some bits will be stronger than others and we pick the best bits and develop them further. We'll do this a few times. Eventually we find ourselves with a sequence of moves that has a beginning, middle and end, and that makes sense to us. Often these include what Alex calls 'the spaces inbetween' where we are real, maybe showing tiredness. Sometimes there's music but not always. That's kind of it.

People have been asking me what SWAGGA is about and I find it hard to say because when I'm dancing I'm in this strange state of high concentration and play that feels quite loopy. I've been joking that dancing is almost psychotic, it has its own reality and logic that exists beyond the normal world. As I'm moving I'm keeping in mind what this enigmatic term SWAGGA means to me, and channelling that as far as I can into my body and out through movements and gestures that are, I guess, dancing. I draw on punk, being female and also somewhat masculine, a feeling of defiance, ersatz street dance, aggression, SM, animal moves, a feeling of wildness, and fat fat fat, always my fat body at the heart of it. Maybe this will change, no doubt the others see and feel different things, but this is sort of what's there for me at the moment.

My transformation from un-dancer to dancer has not been seamless. I still have doubts about my body. Sometimes I ache, sweat, get out of puff, eventually get tired. It appears that I am a human being after all. My arthritis flared up after the first two sessions and I got scared, but I have been pacing myself since then, I'm learning about my limits. I also think that, for me, some pain is acceptable if the payoff is an extraordinary movement or moment. Kay and I get nervous before each session. What our dancing is remains unknown. We are getting to know our choreographers but we are still relatively new to each other. I am taking tentative steps, but I do so trustingly; I have seen them dance and I trust them, I trust their aesthetic, skill and vision.

I feel very powerful after each session. This is to do with spending several hours at a time in an enclosed space with three other powerful people all of whom are encouraging each other to Go There. We Go There each time. You can't predict what the There will be, it emerges as the session goes on, and it is always intensely sublime and all about our bodies. It is amazing to be watched with delight as these moments unfold – a dance of a double chin, a wiggy titty dance, a dance of muscles and fists. We are profoundly un-pretty, we move in ways that were never mandated or imagined for middle-aged fat dykes – I live for this! I can't wait to share it with audiences! I'm so proud of what we are doing!

We rehearse in spaces like these

16 April 2014

Report: Hamburger Queen 2014

Holly Revell took this photograph
I am ashamed to admit that I was cynical when I first heard about Hamburger Queen. It had been a while since I'd been excited about the idea of a détourned queer beauty contest for fat people. It's not like they're ten a penny, more like I felt that I'd got whatever I was ever going to get out of the concept from other iterations.

I showed up to the second show of the first run in 2011 and it was one of the most excellent things I'd ever witnessed, for reasons I'll explain below. I was hooked immediately and have been at every episode since then. I participated in 2012, acted as the in-house therapist in 2013, and have been on the peripheries this year too. It's become one of the joys of my fat queer life.

2014 marks the end of Hamburger Queen. It's too expensive and there are other things to be getting on with. There's one more heat and then the grand final.

It's not over yet, but I'm going to offer a few reflections on the thing anyway. Yeah, this is gushy but so be it. I hope that Fat Studies people are looking at this stuff closely, I sincerely believe it is the future of fat.

Hamburger Queen is immersive popular theatre masquerading as a strange kind of contest. There is a big cast of people who perform and do duties like take tickets at the door, or sell raffle tickets (I won the meat raffle two weeks ago!) and t-shirts. You can eat special Hamburger Queen burgers. You feel as though you have entered a different universe, one where fat people are as much a part of things as anyone else. There are a lot of sequins and glitter slash. The music is themed along with the look of the place. Amidst this are performances, videos, chit-chat with the audience. It's a total environment!

I'm writing this as though it all just happens by magic. It looks that way because the person behind it knows how to put on a show. It's been amazing to see Scottee develop Hamburger Queen over the last four years, a privilege to see the work come about as a product of his astounding imagination, aesthetics, intellect, ambition and sheer graft. He has so much to offer.

That this is Scottee's show is not in doubt, but he's managed to create a platform where many people can shine, not least his co-presenters Amy Lamé and Felicity Hayward. Other performers have come through too: Ginger Johnson has been bringing the house down this year with her love letters to chubby celebrities, Jayde Adams and Miss Annabel Sings have also made their mark, along with internet sensation Jude Bean.

The contest is the thing on which it all hangs. The contestants are a funny bunch and there's a reason for that. Hamburger Queen is a high pressure experience so you'd better be up to it if you're going to apply. It involves wearing something incredible, and doing so fearlessly; performing to a mixed and capricious crowd; and serving up a tasty treat to some very picky people. You do this twice if you get through to the final.

Hamburger Queen makes space for all kinds of people, and one of the things I love is that it does not exalt assimilation. Sometimes a contestant wears a nice outfit, or presents something that is very much a part of mainstream fat cultural values. These people are supported, but they're somewhat marginal to the main event, which is about eye-popping, draggy, fleshy, unapologetic embodied weirdness. My favourite contestants: the skinny hippy drag queen on drugs who twirled and twirled and twirled around the audience; the guy who played with razor blades, cut himself and bled profusely; Scarlett's Human Pass the Parcel act; Neon's Samba moves; Kayleigh's Venus of Willendorf dance; the woman who did Flashdance with paper plates of horrible cream; Ruby sticking a shoe up her whatsit, and on it goes. Every week there is something electrifying to see.

The judges are eclectic, to say the least. They make a mockery of fairness or justice. Contestants try and psych them out, but there's no rhyme or reason as to who wins. It's all decided in the Taste round, and woe betide the contestant who treats it flippantly. I thought Bea Sweet's Kentucky Fried dinner was sublime in the first season, but they hated it. Same goes for the contestant who produced a block of lard covered in party sprinkles. Yet they loved Ashleigh Owen's chocolate shit, served in nappies. You just can't tell. Sometimes a judge goes rogue. June Brown gave everybody a lecture about health; Nancy Dell'Olio threatened some kind of drama that I've now completely forgotten about; Matthew Kelly gave everyone hugs; Fenella Fielding needed an early night; Lisa Stansfield sang for us. Precious moments indeed.

Photo by Holly Revell
Hamburger Queen has played an important part in a shift in my own fat politics. I've been socialised into fat through a mixture of US-centric cut-throat identity politics that don't always translate so well here, and which sometimes feel like a form of cultural imperialism. Added to this is an academic training that values rigour. Hamburger Queen is a hot mess that sticks up two fingers at political purity as an ideal. This has felt so freeing to me. I still think that thoughtfulness and rigour are valuable, and I also adore the places where lines are unclear; the slapdash; the great confusing mixture of things that Hamburger Queen plonks right in your lap. It is so badly behaved. Cue Timberlina's unrepentant, frantic, sex dance in an inflatable fat suit. My eyes.

Hamburger Queen has brought about another change in the way I think about fat activism. I'm less about a reasoned debate with Important People these days and more about a fat tap-dancing troupe called The Cholesterols in a pub full of people roaring with delight. To me, this is about experiencing possibilities, imagining something gorgeous and making it real, doing so collectively in a broader social context that is generally very shut down and conservative. I find it very beautiful and, to invoke a couple of words that are greatly overused, inspiring and awesome. This is where I want to be.

Hamburger Queen is ending, but Scottee Inc continues. This means that there are more exciting performance things in the pipeline. Full disclosure: I serve on the board. Non-disclosure: I'm not going to tell you about the projects that are on their way just yet, you'll have to wait and see. What I can say is that they continue to develop fat spectacle, popular entertainment, new performance forms, queer thrills and more. It's going to be great! Hold tight.

Hamburger Queen
ScotteeScottee YouTube – view clips from all the Hamburger Queens

If you’d like to find out about ways you can support Scottee Inc please email shaun@scottee.co.uk

03 April 2014

Report: Chins Up - Fat and Performance

On Monday 31 March a bunch of us met and talked about fat and performance at an event called Chins Up. I chaired the talk and asked most of the questions. The event was supported by Arts Council England and The Hospital Club.

The panel came about because of ScotteeInc, a charity developing community-based popular performance around themes including fat, age, feminism, working class and queer identity. Scottee and I are part of ScotteeInc. The organisation has been going for about a year now, its award-winning inaugural production, The Worst of Scottee, has racked up a bunch of rave reviews and there are some exciting projects in development. Another ScotteeInc production, Hamburger Queen, opens in London tonight.

So, with ScotteeInc in mind, the idea behind this panel is to talk for a bit about what it is to do fat performance in a climate around 'obesity' that is very repressive. Amazingly, things are looking pretty great in the UK as far as fat and performance are concerned, lots of people are engaged with it and there are good things happening.

The talk was recorded. You can download for free it via iTunes: ScotteeInc Podcasts.

The night went by in a bit of a whirr. Looking back, there are many things I would have liked to have asked. I suspect, for example, that performing is a means that fat people use to make meaning of our lives and bodies. I wonder what it is to perform for majority fat audiences, if people have had experiences of that. I would have been good to make more concrete plans about how and what we need to develop fat and performance in the UK. Also, we never really defined what we meant by 'performance'. Oh well!

I've been flashing on bits of the talk all week. Mostly thinking about the repeated idea that we seek normality or acceptance. This strikes me as odd because none of the panel court normality in performance, quite the opposite in fact! I interpret this to mean that we want to be able to do what we want to do without the burden of people's limited expectations of what a fat person can do or be.

I wanted more of a social mix of speakers in the panel but quite a few people turned me down or weren't available. In spite of my optimism about fat and performance, I also wonder if this exists within a particular sphere of queer life, and that the idea of fat performance remains contentious elsewhere, something with which people would not want to ally themselves, or something barely worth talking about.

Edited to add: I wrote this post in a bit of a hurry and I now notice that it ended on a bit of a dour note. The talk itself was not at all dour! In fact, I think it a valuable discussion amongst practitioners. This kind of thing is pretty rare, I'd say. Fat people are spoken of, but it remains quite unusual for us to speak for ourselves. The inevitable questions about health creep in, but this was not really a panel about that, and that feels exciting too. I see this work as part of the project of developing fat culture, community and identity, which is to say, or recognising that fat people make valuable contributions to the work of being human and that sometimes we have great things to say.

The speakers

Scottee is a wunderkind performer, director, artist, broadcaster and writer from Kentish Town, North London.

Dr. Vikki Chalklin is a queer fat femme performer, activist and scholar based in London. She is interested in feminism, performance, art, bodies, fat, sex, and all kinds of queer cultural production. Alongside teaching and academic research, her performance practice works to blur the boundaries between her creative and scholarly worlds, giving cabaret-style performances of academic work at conferences, and performance lectures at queer performance and cabaret clubs and she has previously performed at Duckie, Bar Wotever, Bird Club, and The Fattylympics. She is also competing to be crowned 2014’s Hamburger Queen.

Kayleigh O’Keefe is a contemporary artist engaging with themes of fat acceptance, body confidence and alienation through performance and film. She has collaborated with established artists and filmmakers, produced and directed immersive live art events for the Pink Bear Club and distributed her performance art videos to an online audience.

Holestar is an artist, entertainer, DJ, writer and queer activist.

Scottee, Dr Vikki Chalklin (pic by AbsolutQueer),
Kayleigh O'Keefe and Holestar (pic by Lee Roberts)