28 November 2016

Report: Fat, Disability, SWAGGA, DaDaFest

Breast wigs, gold mini-mini fingerless gloves,
puce Air Force 1s, the essential parts
of my SWAGGA costume

I'm surfacing from an intense few weeks rehearsing for and being at DaDaFest in Liverpool. For those not in the know, DaDaFest is an organisation that promotes disabled and deaf arts. They host a biannual festival and are involved with lots of other things besides. Their website is a treasure trove. This year's DadaFest (theme: Skin Deep) is still underway, there are still things to see.

I was there for two reasons: 1. To participate in an event around fat activism and disability arts. 2. To perform SWAGGA.

It was really exciting to create public conversations about fat and disability. People who know me will know that I have been interested in this intersection since the early 1990s. I wrote an MA dissertation about it that later spawned a book and a journal article that has also prompted people to write and think about these connections and divergences. Elsewhere people have come to explore the subject independently of my work. It's a thing. But it's hard to create conversations because this is tender stuff and it involves negotiating fatphobia and disablism to varying degrees.

My friend the actor, comedian and activist Liz Carr and I have been talking about fat and crip culture for quite a while and we wanted to have a public conversation about it at DaDaFest. Because the festival is progressive and supportive about fostering conversations that expand ideas around disability, they encouraged us to go for it. Our conversation meandered around our friendship, the things we have in common as fat and disabled people, the things we don't have in common. It was satisfying, full of hope! We have a lot to learn from each other. We were joined during this event by Bethan Evans of the University of Liverpool and Stacy Bias, who have been working on a project about fat people and access.

The talks were set up to be livestreamed and archived online. There were technical hitches that meant we thought this wouldn't happen, but in the end they were recorded, although the image is blurry and the sound very quiet. Have a go at listening with headphones and the sound cranked up. If I ever get some free time I will transcribe it.

Followers of this blog will know that SWAGGA has been a life-changing experience for me. For those not in the know, SWAGGA is a dance project instigated by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small who work together as Project O. They recruited Kay Hyatt and I in 2014 to develop and dance this piece. We have now danced it at a number of venues for many people. We've been working with Trash Kit, who play live on stage with us, and with music composed by Verity Susman. Jo Palmer has designed a beautiful lighting set-up too. There is also a film, check out the trailer.

We swept up this little pile of
dancer's dirt before we could
practise. Dust and long golden
hair. Not ours.

I don't know when we will dance SWAGGA again, or if we will dance it again. Every time I come back to it I feel changed. Dancing at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool, a wonderful venue with a radical history, was probably the best performance of it I've ever given. I had a sense that I'd really cracked it this time, which of course I feel every time! But what was different was that I was able to relax into the performance. We rehearsed quite intensively the previous week, resolved some of the things that I found difficult about it, like the part when I get up off the floor, I was confident and I felt that we belonged at DaDaFest.

Over two years, nearly three, with lots of space inbetween for me to pursue other interests in dance, performing SWAGGA at the Unity felt a bit like a graduation. I've never been to dance school, I doubt that any of them would have me anyway especially at this time in my life, it's unlikely that I would be cast in a dance production other than this, or do well at an audition, or even be invited to audition. For lots of reasons, the dance world excludes fat dancers. My movement and engagement with dance, a lifelong ambition, has been a process of making space in dance for people like me, with the amazing and generous support of radical practitioners. What a trip!

31 October 2016

How to Killjoy an Obesity display one #BodySpectacular at a time

My friend E puts on events and curates things, as is the modern way. Earlier this year she asked if I would like to talk about my book at something she was involved with at the Wellcome Collection in London. For those not in the know, the Wellcome Collection is one of the world's most august museums on medical history. They are very hot on art as a means of understanding medicine and bodies that have been medicalised. Like fat people.

I said yes, I was thrilled to have been asked, and also daunted. The exposure and support of this institution for my work is not to be sneezed at. I work outside of institutions mostly, partly because I value my independence, partly because I feel that I don't belong, and partly because I actually don't belong and would never normally be invited to take part. I said yes because I wanted to see what might happen and because I hoped it would be a good way of supporting the book.

Yet I was daunted. The way in which fat is framed throughout the institution and its sister organisations is very retrograde based on my experiences of rubbing up against it as a visitor and researcher. The public face of the institution's attitude to fat people is located in a display in their Medicine Now exhibit called Obesity. This consists of a sculpture, weight loss technology, diet books, audio recordings of anti-obesity proponents and a token fat woman, and objects implying that people have become less active and over-reliant on labour-saving devices. As a depiction of Obesity Epidemic rhetoric and medicalised obesity discourse, it is pitch perfect. I experience it as a hate zone.

I knew that I would be talking about my book in the lecture theatre on the night, but I also wanted to be in the Obesity gallery. I didn't feel that I could deliver a talk about my book without some comment about the display upstairs. I couldn’t ignore it. I have loathed that display since it was installed in 2007 and I want to see it change to reflect the realities of people like me, and to be approximately a hundred thousand times more critical of the discourse it currently represents.

So I proposed a dance that I would dance with Kay Hyatt in the Obesity gallery. We've been working on a piece that would be suitable, called 'But is it Healthy?' The people at the Wellcome Collection said yes. I said I would make a zine to contextualise the dance, and I did, it's called The Blob. I made some beats to dance to based on some recordings of fat feminists from 36 years ago. I wrote an article about the event for the paper.

I'm making it sound very easy, but the reality is not easy. Another friend, L, said that people would likely tell me how awesome I am, which is nice, but they might not be able to see the risk involved in dancing in such a space.

The risk is I am dancing in a hate zone and that most people are unlikely to understand what that might feel like. Even at this stage in my life it is hard. My hope is that dancing, being there, making a spectacle of myself, might help transform that space. Sometimes I feel hopeful and other times I think I am a fantasist and that nothing can stop the greed and ambition of the weight loss industry. I don't want to bellyache about it too much, it is an amazing privilege to be there at all, I'm so grateful for the invitation and care that has been extended towards me, but it is still complicated and sometimes it sends me into a spin.

Today we did a site visit, I was able to hear the music we will be dancing to in the space and we did a little bit of dancing when no one was looking. I am so moved by the fat feminists who made a path for us all those years ago. When I think of the risks I am taking I am humbled by those women who dared to speak before. They give me a lot of strength. It was amazing to hear them speaking today, to dance to their words which remain so relevant. I felt that I was part of something much bigger than me, that there are many other voices of refusal, not just voices but bodies. I'm not the only one to put myself in a risky place. Those others have given me a lot of courage, they remind me that I am not alone and that this risk is worth taking.

Anyway, here are all the details, downloads and links. Come along if you can but, if you can't, you can still read, watch and listen. My talk on the night will be audio recorded and put on the Wellcome website too.

Paper copies of my zine will be available at the event but you can also download a digital copy.
The Blob (.pdf 4mb)

But Is It Healthy Beats by Charlotte Cooper, featuring Diane Denne, Judy Freespirit, Aldebaran and Judith Stein recorded by Karen Stimson in 1980.

Guardian article (I didn't write that rather boastful title!): The rhetoric around obesity is toxic. So I created a new language for fat people

Wellcome Collection Friday Late Spectacular: Body Language
Friday 4 November 2016

Please note that you will have to book in advance through the Wellcome Collection website if you want to see me lecture, though this is free. The dance will take place around 9.30pm, no booking is required though these events tend to be extremely popular, so get there early.

17 October 2016

Roots of fat activism #20: The Fatluck

I haven't had much energy to write and post lately, apologies. But what I do have is this, a beautiful hand-drawn poster for a get-together in Boston in the early 1980s.

I found this poster in Judy Freespirit's archive at the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society archives in San Francisco. It supports the evidence I present in my book about cross-country friendships in the US being a way in which fat feminism travelled. Judy Freespirit on the West Coast and Judith Stein, one of the propagators of Boston Area Feminist Fat Liberation, were pals. See #19 for more about that.

The poster is printed on yellow A4 paper. It has an image of two fat women in a heart shape on the top left hand corner, an image that also appears in the collated notes (by Judith?) for The First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting: Proceedings of The First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting. That gathering took place in New Haven in 1980 and was circulated through Fat Liberator Publications. Everything is hand drawn, with 'fatluck' written in blobby lettering.

The poster is of its time, which is also what makes it compelling to me. The world seems so different now, what would it have been like to go to a Fatluck? Online maps show me that the laundromat and the bank might still be there but that the women's centre is now at a different location. The terminology has also shifted, womyn being a way of naming gender separate to men's involvement, but also a term that has historical associations with trans-exclusionary radical feminism. Whilst I have seen some trans women/womyn reclaim womyn, I do not see this word very often these days.

What I love about the flyer is its playful and homemade qualities. Potlucks are a staple, a cliché even, of this kind of feminism. There's a postmodern feminist publication that refers to the practice called No More Potlucks. It's a North American name for collectively producing a meal to share. Here the potluck is called a Fatluck, it acknowledges that it is a big deal, a political act, for fat women to eat together, to nourish each other, to talk about liberation and to treat each other with sweet things.

14 September 2016

I'm still fat, I'm still dancing, things are happening

It's nearly three years since I went to see Project O dance a piece called O. This sparked a chain of events that has included me becoming a dancer. I always did dance, at clubs and around my flat, but things are different now. I have worked with choreographers and I've been part of a show, I have been welcomed into dance community in London, I have been in a film, I have been commissioned to make pieces, I've been to classes, I've been reviewed in the blimmin' Guardian.

Dance is now a big part of my life. By this I mean that at nearly 48 I am really getting to know my body and understand more about how it is a means of expression and feeling. I'm making space for this through thought and action. I'm annoyed that it has taken so long! Hopefully I have plenty of time left to refine what I'm learning.

I go to the studio regularly and it's exciting every time. Fat people are so used to being surveilled that being in a space where you can experiment with movement without being overlooked or judged, in complete privacy, feels like absolute freedom.

I've been making little digital timelapse films of some of these sessions, they condense a three hour stretch into 20 seconds or so. I edited some of them together into a short film. Even though it verges on comedy and I'm trying to challenge the idea that fat people dancing must always be the joke of the century, I really love seeing us zip around so quickly. The short film gives you some idea of what might happen when I spend time in a dance studio. It is fun, funny, and there's a lot of other stuff going on too.

By the way, I always come away from a session thinking that I hardly moved, but then I see the timelapse and recognise that there is a great deal of movement. I suspect this is one of the ways in which I have internalised fatphobia: the erroneous belief that thin dancers move dynamically and constantly, fat dancers do not.

One of the pieces that my partner and I have been developing is a dance called But Is It Healthy? This is the question that people always ask whenever I talk about fat stuff in public. Sometimes I place bets with friends and colleagues about whether it will be the first question.

When people ask me if fat is healthy or not, they are looking for a yes or no answer, and they expect someone to have that answer, which they believe is based in expert scientific research. But it is an impossible question to answer, not least because fat people are a diverse group, health is constructed in myriad ways, and expert science is not incontrovertible.

I have become sick of this question. Whilst I cannot control who asks it, I can make choices in how I answer. So now I have a dance that I can do whenever it arises, and this feels a lot more satisfying.

I will be dancing a longer version of But Is It Healthy? at The Wellcome Collection's Obesity gallery, part of their permanent display. I have many things to say about this space, but more about that some other time. The dance will be supported by a lecture, original music and a zine. More details coming soon.

Wellcome Collection Friday Late Spectacular: Body Language
Friday 4 November 2016

07 September 2016

Roots of fat activism #19: Stein and Freespirit

During the research process for my book I would occasionally find something in the archive that looked unassuming but said so much more. This poster for a reading by Judith Stein and Judy Freespirit, that I found in Freespirit's holdings at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, is one such example.

The typography and the images are very straightforward and the yellow paper is eye-catching. I'm not sure of the year, I'm assuming it's the early 1980s, given the Bobbeh Meisehs reference.

What this poster confirms to me is that Jewish lesbian feminists were important in the development of fat feminism. Radical Jewish feminist community was strong and active at that time in the US, I remember anthologies and conferences taking place. Many prominent early fat feminists were Jewish women. What this means in terms of politics and identity is hard for me to say as someone who is not of that identity, time and place. But I am assuming that better placed people might have insights as to how this affected the politics and range of fat feminism in the early days, for example through radical Jewish traditions of social justice. I imagine that it was important and that there are still many resonances that have not yet been fully acknowledged.

There were events by and about fat lesbian feminists which also encompassed other subjects. So here fat lesbian, Jewish, Yiddish and survivor identity was brought to the event as a kind of intersectional lens, in today's social justice parlance. I think this is important because it's a reminder that as activists we don't have to be positioned solely as fat, we can bring many things to the conversation.

Fat feminists were creating cross-country alliances at that time and maintaining earlier networks even as they migrated and fractured. I know Freespirit had spent time on the East Coast and was part of fat activist organising there for a while. It's amazing to me that geography and minimal resources did not stop people doing things.

Stein's work through Bobbeh Meisehs Press is now super rare and I have seen dealers online trying to sell it for hundreds of dollars. I understand that she created the Press to publish Jewish lesbian feminist material, and that her New Haggadah: A Jewish Lesbian Seder went through a couple of pressings and is held in high esteem by cultural historians. I don't know what happened to Freespirit's Daddy's Girl. I would love to see these documents.

It's really good to see access being advocated, not just wheelchair access but signing, and a sliding scale donation suggested. Accessible events often remain an afterthought here in the 21st century. On the other hand, it's women-only, a more contested proposal in terms of who is and who is not granted access, but consistent with the politics of the times. Today one would hope that there would be more sensitivity around gender and access in radical fat feminist community.

I get pangs when I see this poster, though I know that this is my nostalgia and that this does not necessarily illuminate much for those who were there. Nevertheless, Stein and Freespirit look full of life and power, as though they have so much to say. I can't help wishing that I could travel back in time and sit in on that reading. I would love to hear these old wives spin a few tales.

Edited: 15 December 2016

Since I first wrote this post Judith Stein has generously scanned and given permission for me to put her Bobbeh Meisehs online for people to download, read and share. All material is her copyright. Please enjoy them!

Stein, Judith (1980, revised 1982). A Jewish Lesbian Chanukah. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 2mb)

Stein, Judith (1981, revised 1987). A New Haggedah: A Jewish Lesbian Seder. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 18mb)

Stein, Judith (1980, revised 1986). The Purim Megillah: A Feminist Retelling. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 18mb)

Stein, Judith (1982). Telling Bobbeh Meisehs: Some Notes on Identity and the Creation of Jewish Lesbian Culture. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 4mb)

Stein, Judith (1980, revised 1986). On Lesbian Invisibility: A Midrash for Shavuos. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 2mb)

Stein, Judith (n.d.). Why the Moon is Small and Dark When the Sun is Big and Shiny: a Midrash for Rosh Chodesh. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 1mb)

Stein, Judith (1993). How to have a Satisfying Jewish Lesbian Seder (in three easy steps) in Zahava, Irene ed., How To...Short Stories by Women. Ithaca NY: Violet Ink, 39-41. (.pdf, 3mb)

11 August 2016

Watch the 1979 Fat Underground video

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about what it was like seeing the Fat Underground video.

A generous reader of this blog, who may or may not wish to be named, shared a digitised copy of the video with me. With her consent I have uploaded it to YouTube for others to see. Watch the Fat Underground video from 1979.

Edited to add: I watched the video at the weekend and realised that it is different to the video that I referred to in the other post. I suspect the other video that I saw at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco in 2010 is Shirl Buss' original 1975 footage, edited and embellished here by Marge Dean. This begs the question: could there be other Fat Underground videos out there?! Meanwhile, it would be great to see the 1975 video digitised and made available too.

By the way, I am thrilled to notice in the credits that Kathy Fire is one of the chorus. Her album, Songs of Fire, is a classic of protest music, a favourite of Homosexual Death Drive, and still available through the Smithsonian Institution. It makes sense that she was also a part of early fat feminism.

There are some things to bear in mind:

  • The video might not stay there for very long. I have done a brief search for Marge Dean, the copyright holder, and will continue to look for her. I haven't been able to find her yet, but she may get in touch and she may want the video taken down, which I will do.
  • YouTube identified some copyrighted material in the film in the form of a song. I don't know if the film-makers cleared the right to use that song. The song owners have allowed its use on YouTube but it does mean that there may be ads, and also that other people can't embed the video on their websites. This is beyond my control. If the ads turn out to be weight-loss related or in any way fatphobic or offensive, I will remove the song and therefore the restrictions, and add some notes about that to the video's page.
  • I have turned off comments on the video because they are usually crap.
  • I have set it to unlisted to try and avoid random fatphobes.
  • It's a little glitchy because it was made from an old VHS tape.

I can't believe other fat activists are going to get to see this video now, after all these years. What will it spark?

Dean, M. and Buss, S. (1979). Fat Underground [video]. Available https://youtu.be/UPYRZCXjoRo

04 August 2016

Roots of fat activism #18: Off Our Backs letters page

Off Our Backs was a radical feminist newspaper from the US that ran from 1970-2008 in various forms and was collectively produced. Some people get Off Our Backs mixed up with On Our Backs, a queer sex magazine that is also now sadly defunct. On Our Backs' name satirised Off Our Backs' problematic relationship to sex and readers who are ignorant of the lesbian sex wars might want to go off and find out what that was about in order to understand why these names are significant.

A digital archive of On Our Backs is available for free online – hurray! I have yet to do a full one-handed sift through the back issues but I am pretty sure there is plenty of fat stuff in there. These pornographers were good feminists after all. You will also find some things that I wrote, I was a columnist for the rag towards the end.

Alas, you will need university or institutional access to look at digitised editions of Off Our Backs. There must surely be sociological observations to be made here about access, respectability, feminism, class and the like between the availability of both journals, but I'll save that for another day. For copyright reasons I can't share the articles, but I have referenced them below if you would like to go digging for them.

I'm mentioning Off Our Backs here because I wanted to share some of the material I found on the letters pages during the period I was researching my book. The editorial collective ran a lively letters page, with discussions stretching across several issues or more if it was one of those intractable subjects that radical feminism could not figure out adequately, like SM. Through reading the letters page you get to see threads appear.

The main one concerns the paper's, and presumably feminism's, struggle to comprehend fat feminist politics. From 1976-1991 they get it wrong again and again! Readers are furious about Off Our Backs' editorial stereotyping fat people as capitalists, about references to 'overweight' and poor health, about an advert for a diet product that is later pulled, about the decision to publish a violently fatphobic letter from a reader. A thread in which Aldebaran pulls Off Our Backs on their fatphobia results in a weedy and defensive response by the collective, although that doesn't stop them publishing her eviscerating reply to their denial. It is electrifying to read.

Around 1978 there is also an illuminating discussion about Fat Is A Feminist Issue. Off Our Backs predictably takes the line that this is a good and useful book, though hedges its bets by inviting two women with opposing views to offer their thoughts. They shouldn't have bothered, Aldebaran is once again on the case, supported by Elly Janesdaughter, and people called Lizard, Helen, Shan and KR. Despite this awesome resistance to the problematic psychoanalytic views of fat women's bodies reflected in that book, Off Our Backs appear to have learned very little and five years later are publishing more about fat and compulsive eating, this time refuted in the letters page by Marjory Nelson. By 1985 they are being taken to task for implying that weight loss surgery is no big deal. The subsequent editorial amnesia to these critical accounts suggest to me that this is one of the ways in which these pernicious and unhelpful ideas about fat women and weight loss have persisted over the years. Time and again in the letters page I witness arguments in beautifully crafted dispatches by fat feminists being pushed aside in favour of feminist fatphobia.

There are also some curiosities. A correspondent called Moral offers some feminist evolutionary theory for the existence of fat women in 1980 and invokes some dubious racialised arguments to prove her point. But best of all is a 1978 communiqué from The Glacial Acetic Acid Liberation Front about their plans to vandalise a fatphobic poster. Wow!

Off Our Backs published a handful of articles about fat over its lifetime, separate to the discussions that went on via the letters page. The tone and range of these articles diminished, in my opinion, as time went on. They became a lot blander, more concerned with 'body image' and 'dieting' than fat, presumably because this is seen to be less contentious and is relatable to more women. Indeed, this shift was orchestrated by fat activists. I could be wrong but I understand that The Body Image Task Force (sounds really militaristic on reflection!) was a NAAFA and National Organisation of Women strategy to broaden interest. In my opinion it ended up backfiring because it had the effect of erasing the radical fat feminist voices that came before, instead of building on their analyses of oppression. To my mind this reflects the growth of conservatism in fat feminism, contextualised in a Western political shift to the right more generally, which continues through 'body positivity' and its ilk. You can see this play out through Off Our Backs, the paper is like a microcosm for this process, which I write about in more detail in my book.


Aldebaran (1979) 'Letter: oob perpetuating stereotypes', Off Our Backs, 9(11), 31.
Aldebaran (1980) 'Letter: liberal on fat', Off Our Backs, 10(3), 31.
Aldebaran (Vivian Mayer) (1979) 'Letter: compulsive eating myth', Off Our Backs, 9(7), 28.
Earthdaughter, d. (1991) 'Letter: diet pills next?', Off Our Backs, 21(3), 35.
Edwards, E. A. (1989) 'Letter: weight oppression', Off Our Backs, 19(8), 26.
Elg, T. (1991) 'Letter: weight ad unacceptable', Off Our Backs, 21(5), 34.
Freepers♀n, K. (1983) 'Letter: heavy punishment', Off Our Backs, 13(5), 30.
Hutchins, L. (1985) 'Letter: and response', Off Our Backs, 15(8), 34.
Janesdaughter, E. (1979) 'Letter: fatophobic feminists', Off Our Backs, 9(7), 28.
KR (1979) 'Letter: free to be fat', Off Our Backs, 9(5), 28.
Lizard, Helen and Shan (1979) 'Letter: thin thinking', Off Our Backs, 9(5), 28.
Moral (1980) 'Letter: fat save species', Off Our Backs, 10(3), 31.
Nelson, M. (1983) 'Letter: thinly veiled insult', Off Our Backs, 13(5), 30.
Roark, D. (1976) 'Letter: sized up &boxed in', Off Our Backs, 6(5), 30.
Stockwell, R. (1985) 'Letter: shadow-boxing', Off Our Backs, 15(8), 34.
Unsigned for obvious reasons (1979) 'Letter: fat kills', Off Our Backs, 9(7), 28.
Wiesner(sic), B. (1985) 'Letter: stomach stapling', Off Our Backs, 15(8), 34.
WildSister, K. (1990) 'Letter: not buying it', Off Our Backs, 20(8), 34.
zana (1990) 'Letter: stress of dieting', Off Our Backs, 20(8), 34.

28 July 2016

New open access Fattylympics chapter queers public health

I'm delighted to announce that a chapter I co-authored with Bethan Evans is now available to download for free!

Reframing Fatness: Critiquing 'Obesity' is a piece in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities edited by Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods, which has just been published. In our chapter we talk about fat activism and queering public health through projects such as QUILTBAGG and Homosexual Death Drive.

The book retails at an eye-watering £175. I doubt that many activists would ever have access to this collection at this price. Only the most elite and inaccessible libraries will be able to afford to buy copies. Amazingly, the ePub is also the same price. Nevertheless, the University of Liverpool have paid for the chapter to be open access, for which I am grateful. Their actions mean that you can get it for free.

For the uninitiated, this is how academic publishing works nowadays. You may wish to check out The Para-Academic Handbook for alternative academic strategies.

Evans, B. and Cooper, C. (2016) 'Reframing Fatness: Critiquing 'Obesity'' in Whitehead, A. and Woods, A., eds., The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wardrop, A. and Withers, D. M., eds. (2014) The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting, Bristol: HammerOn Press.

Roots of fat activism #17: 1980s Fat Feminist photography

By the early 1980s fat feminism was spreading through a number of groups in the West, though fatphobia remained a big problem within the women's movement and society in general. Radical lesbian feminism of the period, including separatism, helped to establish an infrastructure of organisations, venues and businesses where fat feminism could be explored.

One of the ways in which lesbian feminists of that time did this was through photography. During my research travels to the archives for my book, I came across startling and powerful photographs of fat lesbians by Cookie Andrews-Hunt, Cathy Cade, Zoe Mosko, Lynn Levy and Judith Clarke. Vida Gallery in San Francisco hosted Fat Fridays for a period, and showcased images of fat lesbians. I have included blurry me-in-the-archive phonecam images here but would encourage readers to try and find the originals.

Andrews-Hunt, a leather dyke and photo editor, produced Images of Our Flesh in 1983, a calendar featuring pictures of The Fat Avengers, a fat lesbian feminist group from Seattle. Perhaps this influenced later activism such as the calendar produced as a fundraiser for Heather McAllister when she was undergoing cancer treatment, or the annual Adipsitivity calendar.

Cathy Cade's A Lesbian Photo Album from 1987 documented fat feminist community in the Bay Area, including Judy Freespirit. Her photograph of Pandoura, which I think may be from Images of Our Flesh is a rare glimpse of a fat lesbian of colour from that period.

My favourite photograph from Images of Our Flesh is Judith Clarke's portrait of Banshee. She is wearing a Fat Liberator t-shirt (Stop Fat Oppression: Support Fat Dykes) and looks so contemporary, meaning of her time as well as timeless. I can imagine bumping into her in queer community today.

Some of these photographers are now dead, some of this work is sadly obscure and exists only in the archive. But they resonate so strongly for me because they are visual depictions of community, of those who came before, they remind me that I am part of a movement, and they look absolutely fantastic.

Cade, C. (1987) A Lesbian Photo Album: The Lives of Seven Lesbian Feminists, Oakland, CA: Waterwoman Books.

Andrews-Hunt, C. (1983) Images of Our Flesh, Seattle: The Fat Avengers.

22 July 2016

Roots of fat activism #16: The Social Model

In her excellent book, Fat Rights, Anna Kirkland lays out a number of arguments that fat people and their representatives might use to fight discrimination in a US court of law. She draws on anti-discrimination theories that emerged from anti-racist and anti-sexist legal work, and disability law in particular. I first came across the Social Model of Disability in the early 1990s through the work of Mike Oliver, but I am including it here because it has been around for some time and has important overlaps with these earlier attempts to shift the focus around discrimination.

What do I mean by a Social Model? It is an alternative to the belief that the individual should be held responsible for the discrimination directed against them. This belief is directed at fat people in this way:

Fatty: I am discriminated against because I am fat.
Society: You should just lose weight and then you'll be fine.
Fatty: It is almost impossible to lose weight and keep it off forever and it will damage my health and wellbeing if I try and do that. Here's a load of stats and proof.
Society: Too bad! You'll just have to keep trying. Plus it makes quite a lot of money for us and gives us people to scapegoat. Hurrah!

With a Social Model the burden of responsibility for dealing with discrimination is shifted towards society in general:

Fatty: I am discriminated against because I am fat.
Society: We recognise that losing weight is not a solution to this problem and we should change our systems, values, institutions etc so that no one is discriminated against for being fat (plus points: no one is discriminated against for a host of other reasons too).
Fatty: Yippee! Let's get this shit going!

It is my belief that a Social Model is crucial to fat activists. Operating under the assumption that social attitudes are the problem, and not the individual, enables fat activists to identify those places where discrimination surfaces and do something about it. It is much harder to get organised if we are to believe that discrimination is our own fault. Perhaps this is one reason why anti-obesity people continue to promote the idea that weight loss is the only way forward, they want to keep us in our place, invested in a losing game, to stop us from becoming disruptive.

I wrote primarily about the Social Model of Disability and fat identity in my first book, Fat and Proud and I say a bit more about it in my recent book. But although others have built on that work, it's quite rare to find the Social Model spelled out in the archive and in fat activist communities. I think this is because it is most associated with disability activism and reflects the infuriating divisions between fat and disability activists, which are only now being eroded. But it remains an important way of thinking about fat activism, it is an activist-based theory that has foundations in anti-racism and anti-sexism. It is a key tool for the liberation of all people, in my humble opinion. I'm perplexed why it isn't invoked more often and would encourage readers to find out more about it.

Cooper, C. (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press.

Cooper, C. (2016) Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, Bristol: HammerOn Press.

Kirkland, A. (2008) Fat Rights: Dilemmas of Difference and Personhood, New York: New York University Press.

Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement, London: Macmillan.

15 July 2016

Roots of fat activism #15: The Fat Underground video

In 2010 I had a very startling moment. I was visiting the GLBT Historical Society archives in San Francisco, looking at Judy Freespirit's papers. I was researching my doctorate, a version of which has been published as a book. I can't remember if I had met Judy at this point, or was yet to meet her.

I found a lot of interesting stuff in her boxes. If I've said it once, I'll say it a thousand times more: fat activists, please make plans to archive your stuff, our stories are fragile and in danger of becoming lost.

The startling moment was the discovery of a VHS cassette with the words Fat Underground on its spine. No other information. No information in the content of the tape about who made it and when, either. A mystery tape.

The facilities for screening VHS tapes at the GLBT Historical Society at that time were basic to say the least. I sat in a windowless cupboard-cum-kitchen, piled with detritus and watched the tape on an old monitor.

Suddenly here I was, seeing the Fat Underground spell out their manifesto, producing skits, talking directly to camera. The video looked old, blurry and washed out. I was excited that the FU used technology in this way, perhaps in the mid to late 1970s. It was great to see them sitting together in some kind of underground room, looking like a group of revolutionaries. Lynn Mabel-Lois, now Lynn McAfee, made my hair stand on end with her address to the viewer: she grabs her fat arm and says "I feel like a freak and I'm getting PROUD!"

I was too dumbfounded to ask the archivists about the tape, if I could make a copy, what the deal was in terms of taking stills, anything like that. I just sat and watched it, and made notes with my pencil in my notebook. I also took some terrible photos of the screen with my phone because I couldn't believe what I was watching and I wanted proof later on that I had seen what I had seen.

Up until this point I had never seen pictures of the Fat Underground, let alone moving images. In many ways this group is mythical to me, even though I know people who were involved. They existed to me through obscure documents and a kind of echo chamber of rumour, hearsay, half-remembered detail and so on. They were a foundational moment in fat feminist activism, but always somewhat removed. Because of the mythology surrounding the group, sometimes I wonder if I'm making things up. In the face of obesity discourse, fat people are usually positioned as unreliable narrators (the opposite is more likely to be true, of course, obesity discourse is a gaslighter par excellence). But here was evidence: they are real!

I suspect other copies of this tape exist in other archives. I would encourage fat activists with better access than me to investigate making this recording public, or developing it further. It is an amazingly rich resource.

Edited to add: you can now watch this video online.

29 June 2016

Fat Activism and Research Justice

I first came across the term 'Research Justice' at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in 2010. This may have been the first time that the conference scheduled some sessions on the theme. Since then, the AMC has hosted Research Justice network gatherings and the concept has grown. You can find documentation on the AMC website.

As I understand it, Research Justice has grown out of indigenous Participatory Action Research projects and Linda Tuhiwai Smith's foundational text Decolonizing Methodologies. DataCenter, in Oakland, California is an organisational proponent of the term, and has published various toolkits and reports. Research by and about Domestic Workers in Southern California that I have found through DataCenter have made particularly powerful reading. The organisation has a useful YouTube presence too. Last year Andrew J. Jolivette published a Research Justice anthology in Chicago, which looks pretty good but also somewhat academic and focused primarily on work in North America. It is important that Research Justice not become another academic discipline, especially when academia excludes so many, but remains something that anyone can use.

When I was first learning about Research Justice I was also inspired by the Young Women's Empowerment Project in Chicago, who produced a really great piece of research about their Bad Encounter Line. I'm not sure if the project still exists, but you can read about this research on their Media & Free Stuff page. In the UK, Salvage, a recent project about gendered violence in activist communities is similarly brilliant, I am proud to have been a part of it and am looking forwards to seeing where it goes as more people learn about it.

I have produced my own small-scale research projects using this concept, in particular No More Stitch-Ups, from 2014. My book is built on the idea that how knowledge is generated and owned is political, and that obesity discourse does not have to be the only way in which we might understand fat people.

Research Justice enables me to think of research as activism. There is a tradition in fat activism of ripping apart obesity research, about fighting research injustice, but what would it be like to generate and own our own knowledge? It would be amazing if fat people were to undertake their own research, and not only with university support or under the patronage of thin academics. What might we find if we pursued our own research agendas? I am particularly interested in DIY research, using low or no-cost resources to find things out that might benefit communities of people who don't otherwise get a look-in. I am interested in developing research skill-shares around this stuff. It is a myth that research has to be expensive, obscure and highly academic.

I also want to encourage people working in research institutions to consider Research Justice as a form of methodology. There are certainly overlaps with Participatory Action Research, but I think that Research Justice is more than a method or a consideration of ethics inresearch, it is a theoretical orientation that can underpin all kinds of research and places a commitment to social justice at its heart.

In June I made a little graphic with some questions to consider when either looking at or designing research. I made the mind-map as a response to a series of performances and workshops in Bristol called Emergenc(i)es, which was about developing new responses to the crises of the times we are in. It was a prompt to think about how to survive and thrive in difficult times. Emergenc(i)es was affiliated to the AntiUniversity a really fantastic para-academic project in the UK. The graphic is not exhaustive, I expect to come back to it and fill in gaps as I go along, but I hope it gives some idea of the critical nature of Research Justice as I see it, and encourages people to think about how knowledge is created, perhaps to become knowledge producers themselves.

Click on the image to see a larger-sized version. Extra points if you can spot the accidental typo!

Refusing co-option by the weight loss industry

I've been wondering why I had a 1050% increase in traffic to this blog over the past month. My stats tracker is somewhat perfunctory at best, so I wasn't getting much joy until this morning, when I found that this blog had been co-opted by a popular 'health' website as one of its best obesity blogs.

It took me a while to find the listing because this website crashed my computer every time I tried to have a look. Thanks guys! But there I was, amidst all the usual thinspo, unavoidable ads for Atkins crap, and creepy 'health experts'.

Part of me thinks that the author of this list is trying to be subversive by including me. But the whole thing looked as though it was put together by a robot, trying to extract the maximum clickage and monetisation-per-pixel that that fantasy quickly evaporated (also by the author: "Is Cheese Bad for You?"). The kicker is that there is some small print at the top to say that all of the entries had been "medically reviewed" by someone who must surely be a quack. Medically review my middle finger!

Although my traffic is currently very high there is very little increase in engagement with what I am posting. The stats are probably robots too. It's amazing how the killer keyword "obesity" racks up the page-views, and presumably money for other people without any substance. 16 years of fat panic and this remains what it's all about.

Let me get this straight: the medicalised concept of obesity represents a system of hate that I have spent most of my life trying to destroy. This blog represents some of that work. I called it Obesity Timebomb because I believe that obesity as a system of oppression needs blowing up and that fat people are the ones to push the button. Most people who come to my work have at least some understanding of that. But people in the world of obesity, particularly those who see it as a cash cow, are not smart, they think I want their free content and their patronage. They don't understand irony or punk. They think that fat people are passive and grateful, not dangerous.

I have written to the website to ask them to remove my listing, that it was put there without my knowledge, and to say that I loathe everything they stand for. I expect it will disappear into a black hole. But for the record I want readers of this blog to know that I will never allow myself to be co-opted by weight loss, this is not a diet blog, I am not part of that world, in fact I want to see it end. Co-option is a dirty trick of the weight loss industry to try and de-fang fat activism, I want our fangs to remain ready to bite. If you see my work on such a platform, it was done without my consent.

24 June 2016

Fat 101 for Nurses and Health Professionals

I went to see the nurse to get my blood pressure checked and to book a cholesterol test and I ended up with one of the worst clinical encounters I've had for a very long time. A doctorate in queer fat activism, a publishing track record and nearly thirty years of experience in collectively critiquing fat hatred is a pretty good foundation for getting your blood pressure checked whilst fat, one of the most basic medical interventions around, but it does not protect you entirely from feeling as though the rug has been pulled out from under you when a nurse pulls some fatphobic moves. I ended up with old memories of self-loathing, feeling destabilised and confused, and this from a clinic that says it is passionate about supporting people's health and wellbeing in its mission statement. I worry about the people who don't have my experience and credentials.

I have no intention of ever booking an appointment with that nurse again, but I have some pointers from this experience that may be of use to other medical practitioners.

How nurses and other health practitioners can support people of all sizes to have optimum health


Keep a set of weighing scales in the middle of the room like a monument to BMI. It makes it look as though this is the most important tool of measurement for you and reveals how little you know about body weight and health.

Smirk when a fat person declines to be weighed. Declining is a brave act of self-advocacy in the face of monumental pressure to capitulate to a system that does not have fat people's best health interests at heart.

Judge. Fat people can tell you are doing it, we have had a lot of experience of this.

Be surprised when you ask a fat patient about their life and they reveal themselves not to be the saddest sack of the universe, especially if you find out that they have more going for themselves than you do.

Gloat about your own thin privilege.

Get stressed or blame the patient when you struggle to find a pulse or do a basic check because you are not comfortable touching a fat person.

Treat patients as repositories of data for your poorly designed computerised records systems of questionable security.

Use any fat-sized medical equipment that has the name of a weight loss drug plastered all over it, especially if that drug has been implicated in the sudden deaths of fat people. Buy a large-sized blood pressure cuff, don't use one that is basically a giant advert for Reductil. How can your patients ever trust that you are not in the service of those brands?

"Take control," patronise patients with empty promises that "it will come together" to excuse your inability to listen to a person and support them with their needs that they have plainly stated.

Sneakily schedule blood tests for all the so-called fat diseases, which the patient has had before and for which there is no evidence that these diseases are a problem for them. Don't think your patient won't notice what you have done and know that you have been judging them the whole time. Don't be surprised when this patient does not go along with your great fatphobic plan. You may be tempted to stereotype fat patients like this as wilfully non-compliant and self-sabotaging. Don't do that.

Treat people as automatic fodder for the medical industrial complex. Maybe a medical solution is not appropriate.

Touch someone weirdly. Don't rest your hand on mine as you tell me about your ex-wife who was also a psychotherapist.


Remember that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that this is human.

Listen to the patient. If they say their problem is stress, or anything else, do not assume that their problem is that they are morbidly obese(sic).

Listen extra hard if you have only just met that patient. Get to know them as a person.

If time is tight or the computer system determines what happens in the clinic, acknowledge that you are working within limitations.

Understand that being weighed is not a neutral act. Don't proffer it. Try and have some compassion and understanding for what scales might mean for a fat patient, even if your own experiences of being weighed are nothing to write home about.

Collaborate. Treat fat patients as people who are invested in their own healthcare, especially if they make an appointment out of the blue to get their blood pressure checked. This is proof that they care about their bodies.

Get consent. Share data with your patients without them having to drag it out of you.

Try and laugh when your patient makes a joke about being a zombie when you are unable to find their pulse because you are uncomfortable with handling a fat body. They are being generous and are trying to help you.

How to recover from a bad interaction with a medic

Remember it's more likely to be them and their system that is the problem than your fat body.

Talk to someone you can trust with your feelings, don't be alone with it. Perhaps resist posting on social media even if you feel alienated and upset, you may find that people's responses there are far from soothing.

Write down what happened, get it out of your head.

Make another plan for looking after your health.

Send the clinic some feedback if you feel up to it.

Make some tea.


Roots of fat activism #14: Fat Feminist Activist Working Meeting

Image from the proceedings of the
First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting
Edited, thanks to Karen Stimson's invaluable comments and clarifications.

During 18-20 April 1980 the First Fat Feminist Activist Working Meeting took place in New Haven, Connecticut. This was the first ever fat feminist conference.

It attracted 17 participants. A number of fat feminists lived fairly locally including Karen Stimson, Judith Stein and Aldebaran. Some had set themselves up as the New Haven Fat Liberation Front. There was fat community forming in the Boston area. Others came to visit, including Judy Freespirit. There were workshops, talks and fat women's cultural entertainment in the evening.

The event piggybacked on a women's health conference that was also taking place concurrently. The following day there was a keynote panel about fat feminism with the title F.A.T. (Fat Activists Together). It was another first, the first time a feminist gathering had placed fat politics at its centre. From this gathering F.A.T. (Fat Activists Together) became the first national US coalition of fat feminist activists. Their work helped to establish a constituency for fat feminism and was pivotal in getting Shadow on a Tightrope published.

Stimson made audio recordings of the conference and another woman, active in feminist radio, recorded the keynote panel. Stimson used the recordings to make a radio documentary called Nothing to Lose, which was broadcast locally. Material from the proceedings was collated and disseminated. In the comments below Stimson says that the recordings and the papers formed part of an evidence base to persuade the collective who produced the women's health book Our Bodies, Ourselves to include fat feminism. I have seen copies of this work in various archives. I have a digital copy of it but I can't remember where it came from!

The Largesse online archive is invaluable here, Stimson's archival gifts to fat feminist activism are visionary. She offers a full personal account of the gathering and uploaded Stein's recordings as digital audio files. There are also sound files of the evening's entertainment. I defy you to listen without feeling delighted and moved.

Largesse is no longer live, but you can still listen to and download the talks via the WayBack Machine. Remixers, here is where you come in: these talks need to be sampled, set to a deep bass and danced to by fat feminists everywhere.

WayBack Machine: From the Largesse Archives: Voices of Fat Liberation MP3 Audio Files

WayBack Machine: Fat Feminist Herstory, 1969-1993: A Personal Memoir by Karen W. Stimson

New Haven Fat Liberation Front 1978

Fat activism goes to the opera

On Wednesday I spent about five hours in a too small seat watching a pair of fat people command a very large stage. I've been to the opera before but not often, I'm not a buff. I like different kinds of music and performance, including, sometimes, that which is ostentatious, epic and expensive.

Tristan and Isolde is an opera by Richard Wagner. There are many things to be said about the problematic genre of grand opera, and the problematic composer Wagner in particular. There are probably many things to be said about the problematic opera Tristan and Isolde, I know the reviews for this production were not that gushing either. Other people can say those things, I don't have the knowledge or the articulacy to say them here. This is not a blog about opera.

But it is a blog about fat and this is what I do want to say: if you can pick your way through the things that are problematic, it is fantastic to see romantic, heroic, dramatic fat leads singing their faces off in front of several hundred mostly thin people who have paid a lot of money to witness this extraordinary sight.

It would be nice if the seats were accessible, and if opera singers weren't pressured to lose weight. I am aware that fat opera singers are also a comic stereotype. But whilst many fat activists lobby for non-stigmatising media representation of fat people, and rightly so, there is a genre of opera and singer that takes for granted fat people's compelling presence on a stage. I wouldn't exactly call it mainstream entertainment, but it is entrenched in the establishment. It's right there.

In this production of Tristan and Isolde, Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton were dressed in giant armour and farthingale respectively, they were really big. Tall hair too. Melton flanked by Karen Cargill as Brangäne, also fat. It's possible none of these performers would want to see themselves as I saw them, you're probably not allowed to say the unsayable, and I notice that reviews are coy in their descriptions of the singers. But what I saw was fat people taking up space and deservedly so. I love fat people who are no shrinking violets. The opera, the music, the scenery, the orchestra, the whole extravaganza was one thing, but to me the fat was far out. There should be fat activist opera groups if they don't already exist.

About ten years ago I went to see one of the Grand Sumo Tournaments in Tokyo. I had similar feelings, only this was a different kind of fat physicality and athleticism, enshrined in national pride. Massively fat wrestlers throwing each other into the air. The most expensive seats are at the very front, where you might find a Rikishi crashing down upon you.

Fat is so weird, hated and also adored. How can it be so?


15 June 2016

Roots of fat activism #13: Fat Liberator Publications

One of the central arguments of my book is that activism does not have to be all about the large-scale actions or the grand gestures. Most fat activism takes place in small ways, a conversation perhaps, or a tiny act. Fat Liberator Publications is a fantastic example of a small-scale intervention that had widespread effects.

Established towards the end of the 1970s in the US by Aldebaran, it mostly consisted of a packet of fat feminist activist articles and papers copied and sent out for a small fee. The packet was advertised in lesbian and feminist journals of the time. Several participants in my research mentioned sending off for these papers by post. At a time when it was quite difficult to find fat feminist information, and when publishers had no interest in the subject, these packets were life-changing. So, for example, Liat recollects:
"I was living in [Michigan] in a group house, and there was a woman there [...] and we were living in this house together and she pulled out this bunch–, and it was I remember they, I think I still have it actually, it was all different colours, stapled, and she was like: 'I think you might be interested in this,' I read it and I was like, SNAP, I mean it was just like a massive connection, light-bulbs going off, you know, and there I was. And I was, like, no turning back."
This packet of papers took on a new life in 1983 when it formed the backbone of Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, an anthology that remains foundational to fat feminism.

The book had a similar effect on readers but it was able to travel further than the packet of papers. One of the most amazing findings in my research was when one participant recalled finding a copy of Shadow on a Tightrope in a Bradford charity shop probably around 20 years after it was published. It's mind-blowing how a modest act – posting out copies of articles – can travel so far in time and space.

I don't have a good photograph of any of the Fat Liberator documents. I was so excited when I found them in the archive that my hands were shaking as I took a snap! What is especially thrilling to me are the t-shirt designs featuring a raised fat fist and a group of fat dykes: Stop Fat Oppression - Support Fat Dykes. Now there's a slogan to get behind.

You can find a set of Fat Liberator Publications at the Mayer Collection in the University of Connecticut's archives. The GLBT Historical Center in San Francisco also has documents relating to Fat Liberator amongst Judy Freespirit's papers. See my post Archiving Fat Activism for more.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute, Glasgow: Rotunda.

10 June 2016

No fatphobia, no hate and commodifying anti-oppression

I was on the bus through Shoreditch* yesterday and this fly-poster caught my eye. It's for Afro Punk, which is hosting a festival in London. This is the first time I've heard of this organisation.

It gave me feelings!

Firstly the tag-line "soon come" made me long for a time of no hatefulness and reflect on how far away that seems.

Secondly, I was amazed to see "No fatphobia" included with other forms of hate. I always look for it but I'm used to seeing it left out. My dream from early on in my fat activist life has been for the hatred of fat people to be widely understood as a decimating force, as something that kills and ruins people. My fat politics are rooted in intersectional feminism and queer values. For most of my life as a fat activist, fat politics have been regarded as a joke, an attempt to bandwagon-jump; people I've reached out to in similar liberation struggles have turned away and invested instead in obesity discourse. So it is fantastic to see an organisation that has emerged from a US Black punk movement recognising fat in a matrix of hate targets. Thank you Afro Punk for that vision of inclusion. When I saw "No fatphobia" I felt a lot less alone, I felt hopeful and reminded of my solidarity with all people pushed to the margins and fighting for personhood. I felt the warmth of unity and the resolve to keep fighting for it.

Thirdly, I had feelings that are harder to unpick. No hate is reproduced on Afro Punk merch, including t-shirts and sweatshirts. The t-shirts come in 3xl but no bigger. Does that mean that "no fatphobia" is being reproduced on something that excludes fat people?

The contradictions of politics and commerce do not escape me. Afro Punk in London is a festival where you need a ticket to get in. It's being advertised in a part of town that is a gentrified area of social cleansing. No hate is being mobilised to market things. Is No hate a brand? Are these political sensibilities being commodified? Other anti-oppression politics have been commodified over the years, but this could be a first for fat activism. I don't understand the long-term implications of branding political feelings like these. Making anti-oppression politics hip is certainly a strategy, but what happens when it is no longer fashionable?

I would really like one of those t-shirts though...

*One of London's hipster zones.

08 June 2016

Roots of fat activism #12: whoever i am, i'm a fat womon

I find it thrilling to see film and video of fat activism from the early years. I've read plenty about this work, but seeing the people involved reinforces that this is real, it really happened, I'm not making it up. Why I have a persistent fear of having made any of this up is perhaps testament to the gaslighting of obesity epidemic discourse: fat people are worthless, the idea that we might have cultures, histories, even community or identity is beyond belief.

Sharon Lia Robinson is a poet who has long been a part of fat activism. In this video she reads her poem whoever i am, i'm a fat womon. This poem includes the line that became the title of the ground-breaking fat feminist anthology Shadow on a Tightrope. It comes from her chapbook, published in 1978, fat womon/renaissance, written under the pen-name of Sharon Bas Hannah. Here is the full text.

whoever i am, i'm a fat womon was written in 1976, and the main part of this film, framed by more recent edits, was recorded by Lynne Conroy in 1979 at a rehearsal for the Radcliffe College Women's Theatre Festival, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The poem itself is lovely, but what strikes me when I watch this video is knowing how young and radical fat politics were at the time, and that they were embedded within feminism. That's changed a lot since then. I'm also moved by the use of poetry to explore fat feminist embodiment and experience. Making culture is a means of surviving and thriving, as my research and my own practice has shown over the years.

But what I like most is that this video is not a fat woman on a news report or a TV talkshow, it's not somebody debating their right to exist. The video shows a fat feminist reading her poetry on her own terms.

You can find out more about Sharon through her website.

03 June 2016

Watching an anti-obesity NGO crash and burn

It's been a tough old couple of weeks here at Timebomb Towers but my gloom has been lifted by schadenfreude-tastic reports of bickering and in-fighting at one of the UK's leading anti-obesity NGOs. In general I don't take much pleasure from seeing people in conflict, but I make an exception for fat-hating eugenicists.

The row has arisen because the boss of an anti-obesity charity decided to endorse some dietary advice against the wishes of his colleagues. Now, one set of anti-obesity dietary solutions is as pointless as another, as far as I can see. If dietary advice made fat people go away we would have gone by now. But advice is what these people live for. They see themselves as the answer to the problem of people like me. But they don't consult people like me, they treat us as though we are stupid children. Fat people are so absent from these organisations that we are barely seen to exist at all apart from as an abstracted blob or numbers on a chart. It is inconsequential to them that anti-obesity NGOs speak for us, it's beyond imagining that people like me might want to have a stake in our own lives. As far as this lot is concerned, what they say goes.

Let me twist the knife some more. These are self-important, entitled, ludicrous people riding the gravy train. They are puffed up by weight loss industry patronage with all the trappings of corporate PowerPoints, jargon, high-powered meetings, lunches, keynote speeches and branded promotional knick-knacks. Somebody could make a mint satirising them, they are so ripe for it. Their work is worse than useless, they reproduce stigma at an alarming rate, they have to because this is what delivers funding to their door and rationalises their existence.

It is astonishing to me that anyone gives them the time of day, they truly have no idea of what it is like to be fat or what might support fat people to live good lives. But they are treated like experts of the universe by toadying journalists and policymakers who behave as if they are in the presence of the Great Oz himself.

Anyway, crash and burn, hate-mongering shits. Fight each other until the last one standing is in my crosshairs. Let this be the beginning of the end. I'll toast marshmallows on the blaze and dance on the ashes.

16 May 2016

The new obesogenic, now with added high heels

I saw this image a couple of weeks ago and spluttered.

It's in the Olympic Park, which is not really a park, more a collection of sites being prepared for corporations and social cleansing with some mega sports complexes and token greenery sprinkled inbetween. I live close to this place but it's really inaccessible unless you ride a bike. I know three people who have been killed whilst riding their bikes in my part of town so I no longer ride a bike. Plus, I have no reason to visit this zone of dead culture, and names like Cheering Lane (for real) give me the creeps.

The image is on a billboard in a new area of the not-park where a load of office towers are being built. I spluttered because, like so many things connected to the Olympics and its sticky residue, bad shit is being presented as progressive, bright, shiny, desirable and good for you. To me, this image looks like the latest iteration of obesogenic environments.

In 2013, geographers Rachel Colls and Bethan Evans published a critical take on the concept of obesogenic, which had spread like wildfire towards the end of the first decade of fat panic aka the global obesity epidemicTM. Within this rhetoric, obesogenic environments are those which make people fat and where there is little opportunity for physical activity. They believe that fat people are fat because we don't move our bodies. One of the ways in which planners and policy-makers hope to reduce the number of fat people in the world is by creating spaces that demand physical activity of its inhabitants. This is regarded by anti-obesity proponents as a soft way of engendering public health because people don't even notice it is happening.

Except they do. Especially if they are pushing pushchairs, are on wheels, have mobility impairments, and so on. The bridge leading into the Olympic Park from Stratford has a giant set of steps and two escalators that are frequently broken. There are two lifts that are hidden round the back of a grim passageway. The planners may well have wanted people to take the steps but the reality is that if you can't take them, or don't want to (refusal is not on the cards) the options are very limited. Now, I may be wrong here, but in my version of a Brave New World, dystopian though it may be, at least there is access for all, but this version can't even come up with a level surface. It is retrograde, controlling and non-consensual. It's not that I don't want to live in a place where I can walk in nature and feel connected to my body. What I don't want is the assumption that enforced exercise is the answer to my problems.

Back to the image, how to deconstruct it? Here's some stream of consciousness: I feel sorry for this poor woman who is being made to climb steps all day in high heels. Are her feet bleeding, do you think? Is she sweating? Will she be able to catch up with the men in her department, especially the inevitably white male dominated upper management structure? The steps run out, which makes it look as though she's about to hit the glass ceiling there. I wonder where workers who use wheelchairs will get into the building, round the back? Maybe workers will find a loophole of some kind, perhaps they still have unions and will campaign for proper access, even though I know that's wishful thinking. What's so great about being agile and mobile anyway? But at least she is lovely and slim, I imagine she has to be, fat people aren't welcome in the kinds of places where she works. "The more active we are, the healthier we are," unless you have chronic fatigue, problems with compulsive exercising or are simply human and need a rest sometimes. Who is this "We" they're talking about? How much did this ad campaign cost?

The kicker is a masterpiece of copy writing: "Just imagine leaving work healthier than when you arrived". Just imagine! Work does not make you healthy, it is what sucks the life out of you, especially the kind of work that is going to take place in this location. Work is a system of exploitation and the sale of labour. This is not healthy. In fact, if this is what passes for healthy, we are all truly fucked.

Splutter! Splutter! Splutter!

Colls, R. and Evans, B. (2013) 'Making space for fat bodies? A critical account of 'the obesogenic environment'', Progress in Human Geography, 1(21).

Roots of fat activism #11: Fat Power

Llewellyn Louderback has already made a couple of appearances in this series, first as the author of More People Should be FAT, which then led to the formation of NAAFA.

In 1970 he published Fat Power through Hawthorne Books. Ann Louderback provided research support and it is to her that the book is dedicated. Putting the book out into the world was a difficult experience, Louderback pulled out of the publicity circus for it because media makers wanted to make fun of him (sound familiar?) and later he withdrew from fat politics altogether. The book was not the hit that he hoped for, a big contrast to the effusive praise that More People Should be FAT attracted.

Fat Power book is of its time. The name resonates through Black Power and Gay Power and, even though Louderback described himself to me as a hack writer, he understood that fat had important overlaps with other political movements and struggles. The book treats fat people as a minority that is subjected to oppression, though is at times anti-feminist and politically naive. Yet much of what he writes remains current because fat activism still needs to develop richer theories and approaches, and because fat hatred is still a thing.

A year after Fat Power appeared, Marvin Grosswirth published Fat Pride, again riffing off the spirit of the times, through Black Pride and Gay Pride. By 1974, Abraham I. Friedman MD had jumped on the bandwagon with Fat Can Be Beautiful, a title that hedges its bets if ever there was one and a book that is, frankly, weak. The cycle of grassroots innovation and appropriation by professionals that I write about in my book was taking place even back then.

Fat activism is a social movement formed by feminism and greatly concerned with women's experience. It's vexing that whilst the early fat feminists were mimeographing pamphlets, it was these three guys who had access to book publishing. It would take over ten years before Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression made an appearance, even Marcia Millman's Such A Pretty Face: Being Fat in America didn't roll out until 1980.

Nevertheless, as with Stigma, the early fat feminists are generous with their appraisal of Fat Power; though obscure it remained influential and is an important contribution to the development of the movement. Try and get your hands on a copy if you can, it's still worth a look.

Friedman, A. I. (1974) Fat Can Be Beautiful: Stop Dieting, Start Living, Berkeley, CA: Berekeley Publishing Corporation.

Grosswirth, M. (1971) Fat Pride: A Survival Handbook, New York: Jarrow Press Inc.

Louderback, L. (1967) 'More People Should Be FAT', Saturday Evening Post, 4 November, 10-12.

Louderback, L. (1970) Fat Power, New York: Hawthorn Books.

Millman, M. (1980) Such A Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, Toronto: Norton.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

09 May 2016

Fat Activism, Class and The Left

When I talk about class I mean the stratification of human beings based on money, background, work, access to power and certain types of cultural knowledge. This stratification favours some at the cost of others. Fat and class go together because many fat people are also of low socio-economic status. But this information is usually used to rationalise a cure for fatness, not as a call for political action, or to understand the interrelationships between fat and class, perhaps as a source of identity, pride, or even as a resource for self-knowledge.

On 4 May 2016 I delivered a talk at Housmans book shop in London. Housmans is one of London's few remaining radical booksellers and I took the opportunity to talk about fat, class and how I feel the Left has failed to get on-board with fat activism. When I refer to the Left, I mean a large number of political groups and ideas that are based on ending class inequality. I hoped that by saying this at Housmans, I might encourage more Left-leaning people to think about fat activism as a viable form of politics

I have written up my notes so that they are more readable. This is my first attempt to write something coherent about fat activism and class, but it is still tentative. Class seems to get left behind in intersectional analyses of fat and fat activism, even though it is so central. I speculate as to why this is later, but for now I would like to say that I would love to see class given the weight it deserves.

In my family fat, class and shame were intertwined. My parents dis-identified with being working class, even though their backgrounds are undeniably so, and this manifested through a disdain for fatness, which was seen as a signifier of poverty, a throwback. Class awakening came late for me, but I grew up with my mum and dad's values and experiences and gradually I pieced things together to understood who I am and where I come from. I began to be interested in fat and class after looking at how the left was stereotyping fat people in 2011. I wrote about this in these posts:

Representing fat and class

Demonstrating as the Fat Bloc
How the Left failed fat
Riots in the UK and convenient scapegoats
Fatphobia in the visual language of the Left
Anti-obesity campaigns: fatphobia in the radical left
Fat, austerity, class and benefit sanctions

Fatphobia in the Left is driven by stereotyping

As I came to explore fat and class, I was struck by the amount of stereotyping that went on in the Left in the UK.

Old stereotypes are still invoked. Fat capitalists, fat cats, fat as a signifier of the greedy, lazy, selfish, corrupt bourgeoisie and ruling classes. It's a stereotype that links fat people with overconsumption and oafishness and which contradicts evidence that fat people tend to be of lower socioeconomic status. Martin Rowson's Observer cartoons draw heavily on this stereotype, with added disgustingness, and are seen as perfectly acceptable.

But most of the stereotyping of fat people in the Left is considered more progressive, as caring even! It is popular to think of fat people as pathological, as disordered, as diseased, addicted. Fat means eating disordered. This reflects an obsession with energy balance (fat is a product of too many calories and too little activity, a contested model) as the only means of understanding fat people. This stereotype depicts fat people as pitiful, which is not a progressive stance but an oppressive one, as many disability activists have shown.

In the Left, fat is produced by the overconsumption of the wrong food, the wrong activity. This stereotype plays out through discussions of food deserts, the worry that people are unable to feed themselves, through food justice proponents using fatphobia to leverage themselves. Here, fat is a product of bad food choices, it is fast food, McDonalds. Cue Jamie Oliver and a legion of food snobs to sort us all out! Environmental activists also uses fatphobia and healthism to legitimise themselves in a similar way, for example through cycling campaigns, and other forms of active living.

Fat people are tragic and helpless, but also their own worst enemies. We are wilfully non-compliant (especially parents, especially children) when interventions are made into our alleged overconsumption and inactivity. It is always we who fail, not the intervention. The stereotyping of working class fat people like this in class-based television shockumentaries, for example,  is also a denial of our resourcefulness, intelligence and personhood. It is pitying, dehumanising and often racist and sexist. Depicting people as fat and stupid is part of the demonisation of the working class.

This stereotype is further refined by positioning fat people as a symbol of Western overconsumption. It is not colonialism but fat people who are responsible for exploiting the developing world. This stereotype is used in conjunction with racist 'starving African' imagery, depicting fat and thin as opposites, as enemies. Whilst it is important to critique globalisation, it is wrong to leverage this by abjecting and reinscribing stereotypes onto people's bodies.

Newer stereotypes that have emerged through Austerity, for example the truism that fat people are killing the NHS. Elaine Graham-Leigh's work on his subject is invaluable.

Here's a condensed example of some of this stereotyping rhetoric from an article in The Guardian last year. It's by George Monbiot, darling of the Left, environmental activist, educated at Stowe and Oxford, whose dress size is likely a perfect 10. Amazingly, he has managed to synthesise all of the stereotyping, hand-wringing and pity that I have mentioned above. He even criticises fat-shaming whilst reproducing it in this tour de force of kindly oppression.

Reformulating the problem as a class issue

Long term, safe weight loss is unattainable for most people. Some of us think that even if it were, we would not choose it because we see value in fatness. Nevertheless, current enlightened thinking in the Left, as elsewhere, is that fat people are a social problem that needs to be cured, or "tackled" by making us all normatively-sized, and therefore healthy. This is a middle class appropriation of scientific rationalism. But other considerations emerge when the problem of fat people is reformulated as a class issue.

It reveals that working class fat people are very vulnerable to fatphobia. We are a group of people who are less likely to have access to information, time, resources that will enable us to navigate, for example, adequate healthcare. We are vulnerable to employment discrimination. We tend not to have the sense of entitlement or confidence required to create a smooth path through life for ourselves. When we fall, we are less likely to have safety nets.

Working class people are especially vulnerable to being eaten up by the predatory weight loss industry. This is made up of highly capitalist companies that create dependent customers who blame themselves when the product inevitably fails. It is working class women who are fodder for this industry, and it is this group who are dying or suffering as a result of popular Very Low Calorie Diets advertised on TV in the New Year and during swimsuit season. We are pulled in by ideas of respectability, personal responsibility, good citizenship, class mobility.

Fat people are excluded from policymaking and decision-making about "tackling" fat, working class fat people especially so. This work happens through mystified and exclusive knowledge and spaces. Our lived experience of our own bodies, our own expertise as scholars and activists, is not regarded as a vital resource. This exclusion is built on class. Policy-makers are more likely to be upper and middle class beneficiaries of funding, influence and status. They are the same strata of people pushing neoliberalism. They may be people with financial interests in weight loss, eg advisors/shareholders in Big Pharma or diet multinationals. They represent an industry that is currently benefitting from lucrative public-private partnerships with public services. They also represent a class of people who see themselves as philanthropists whereas fat working class people are a group in need of paternalistic intervention.

Working class fat people are also scapegoats within this curebie/tackling rhetoric. Food taxes generate revenue for the exchequer, but disproportionately affect working class people. Dame Carol Black is proposing benefits sanctions if fat people refuse treatment and this is likely to create new underclass populations of non-compliant fat people to blame, and who probably blame themselves too.

Fat activism in the Left

It is my experience that fat activism is not considered real politics by the Left, and that this reflects how fat is seen elsewhere: a personal choice, something people should change about themselves, not a political issue. Many fat activists themselves who carry a perfect (false and usually unattainable) standard of what constitutes activism. In a similar vein, queer politics and the feminism of fat activism not regarded as real political action either.

This avoidance of fat has led to a muddled and weak relationship to it. There are no widespread critiques as far as I know of class and fat, or the predatory weight loss industry. There is little support for fat people facing discrimination in the workplace, to my mind it is a scandal that this is not a focus of trade union activism. The Guardian, the UK's national newspaper of the Left, remains a major proponent of anti-obesity policy, and this is reflected in their vile fatphobic commenters.

Class in fat activism

But fat activism has not managed to generate much in the way of a class analysis of fat either.

Some of the most prominent fat activists are also people of means, people with private incomes, people who identify as upper middle and upper class, and whose worldviews are normalised even if they don't reflect the experience of being fat for the majority of people. This might be one reason why fat and class is not discussed much. I am not proposing that there should be a politics of purity around class, where some people are positioned as more legitimate than others because of their spotless class backgrounds. But I do suspect that community leaders who have trust funds have not acquired their status purely on merit, and it would be good for this to be more open so that others feel less like failures if they lack class-based access to power.

Meanwhile, the US is the dominant voice in fat activism and the movement reflects national concerns which may be less engaged with class than, say, the UK, where people have suffered through several thousand years of being told to know our places. My understanding of intersectional analyses of fat activism in the US is that it seems to refer to people of colour and to queer people, class is generally left out despite early fat feminist activists coming from socialist backgrounds.

In my book I argue that fat activism is becoming gentrified and that some of the ways in which this takes place are through professionalisation and assimilation. Professionalisation is the process by which community-generated knowledge becomes the domain of professionals, educational institutions and other gate-keepers. This is one way in which working class fat people are excluded from participating. The focus on assimilation – becoming like the dominant culture – also means that there is an emphasis on good citizenship, normativity, respectability, which also keeps out those of us who will never be good, normal, respectable folk.

Dreaming of something better

Before I die I would love to see richer work around fat, activism and class, and for the silence to be broken about privilege, trust funds and what this means for the movement. It would be wonderful to see different kinds of class-conscious activism develop, incorporating anti-colonial analyses when thinking about fat and global power. It is my belief that class must be included in intersectional analyses of fat and fat activism.

I would like people in the Left to understand that the current moral panic around fat is an attack on marginalised people and that it requires a political solution. But mainly I would like to see all of the fat stereotypes I have listed above die out, and for a proper engagement with fat people. Many of us too are of the Left.