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).

100 Fat Activists #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.

04 May 2016

100 Fat Activists #10: Mama Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot was a singer, a scenester and an icon of 1960s sunshine pop. She was a Jewish woman, born Ellen Naomi Cohen. She was also fat in a time and place, not to mention industry, where this was a no-no. For all the rhetoric of the Summer of Love, Elliot suffered from fatphobic discrimination throughout her career, and in her personal life.

She responded to this in a variety of ways: by performing songs that celebrated individuality and difference, through crash dieting and substance abuse. She died in London in 1974 at 32, but had collapsed three months before then, and endured a string of humiliations in the meantime.



A post-mortem examination found that she had died of a heart attack. One can speculate that her substance abuse and crash dieting played a part in this. Predictably her death was reported as a result of her being fat, a way that diet industry mortality is obscured which still continues.

During the post-mortem, no food was found in her windpipe. Yet Elliot became the subject of a vicious fatphobic urban myth – that she had choked to death on a ham sandwich. This myth persists and is usually delivered with a smirk. Mike Myers, wanker extraordinaire, jokes about it in his Austin Powers film inbetween fat-suiting up.

The lie that she died in this way emerged during initial speculation after her body was found. Police told reporters that a half-eaten sandwich was in her room and may have been the cause of her death. This speculation is built on the stereotyping of fat people as voracious and reckless eaters. Elliot was subjected to fatphobic abuse even in death, decades after her passing. We are the butt of jokes when we die tragically young.

Elliot's life and death are significant to fat activists. Living in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, it is possible that she knew of the activities of early fat feminists in that city.



In August 1974, a month after Elliot's death, a group of fat feminists memorialised Elliot at a Women's Equality Day celebration, which took place in a local park and where the Fat Underground had a booth. Sara Fishman recalls:

The Women's Equality Day celebration included an open microphone and stage. When our turn came, members of the Fat Underground, members of the Fat Women's Problem-Solving Group, and some of our friends moved onto the stage. We carried candles and wore black arm bands, in a symbolic funeral procession. Lynn spoke. She began by describing the inspiration Cass Elliot had represented to us, as a fat woman who had refused to hide her beauty. She ended by accusing the medical establishment of murdering Cass, and (because they promote weight loss despite its known dangers) of committing genocide against fat women.

For the next few weeks, we were local heroines. The Los Angeles feminist news paper Sister devoted a full page in its next issue to Fat Liberation, with a photo of our Women's Equality Day demonstration on the cover. Publicly, at least, local radical feminists began to acknowledge fat women's oppression as a problem they would have to take seriously.

Sharon Bas Hannah, writing in Sister in September 1974, said:

Certainly fat people don't benefit from being insulted. Once someone tried to make fun of me on the street by calling out, "Hey, Mama Cass!" The social order functions by keeping certain elements in their place, the people divided and factionalized, so that those who are in power remain there. New scapegoats are always being harnessed. […] One of the earliest reports about her death said that she choked on a ham sandwich. That's not how she died though: Naomi Cohen choked on the culture, on the stale empty air and worthless standards of our conditioning.

Mabel-Lois' eulogy remains a pivotal moment for fat activists. In 2006 Amy Lamé produced a show about her own relationship to Elliot's music and memory. Allyson Mitchell mentioned to me a while back that there would be a performance of the event in Toronto in 2010, a historical re-enactment of it, but I have not been able to find documentation of that.

However, during the research for my book Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I discovered a tantalising piece of information, which is that the protest was filmed and that the Getty Research Institute may have some video of this event. This may be false information, there is a Fat Underground video, which I have seen, but it does not include events from the protest. Perhaps fat activists in Los Angeles could chase this up.



Bas Hannah, S. (1974) 'Naomi Cohen Choked on the Culture', Sister, September, 1.

Fishman, S. G. B. (1998) 'Life In The Fat Underground', [online], available: http://www.radiancemagazine.com/issues/1998/winter_98/fat_underground.html

27 April 2016

100 Fat Activists #9: The Fat Underground's Position Papers

The Fat Underground was a fat feminist group that came out of the lesbian feminist and radical therapy scenes of Los Angeles in the late 1960s. They are foundational to fat activism, and I write about them extensively in my book.

Largesse was a project that ran for over a decade and which hosted an online archive of early fat feminist writings. It is no longer live, but you can navigate fragments of it through the Wayback Machine by searching for http://www.eskimo.com/~largesse/.

One of the collections that Largesse curated was a set of Position Papers published by the Fat Underground in 1974. These are titled: Job Discrimination, Eating, Health of Fat Women: The Real Problem, Psychiatry and Sexism.

A Position Paper is an essay, short ones in this case, that clarify and communicate a basic premise. Position Papers are not so common these days, though NAAFA has a set of them that you can download from their website, including an interesting one on Activism. I wonder if NAAFA were directly inspired to create these documents through earlier encounters with the Fat Underground.

I think the idea of a Position Paper implies that things are set in stone. One of the problems with them is that things change, or there may be a great many grey areas, or people may disagree, and a paper might need to be revised or discarded.

Nevertheless, the Fat Underground's Position Papers make great reading if you can get your hands on them. Anti-sexism is at the heart of their analysis, and remains the bedrock of feminist work on bodies, looks and fat to this day. The entire content of that position paper reads as follows:
The Fat Underground sees sexism as a tool of oppression which is particularly injurious to fat people. The essence of sexism is that people may not be individuals. Sexism prescribes that people be assigned roles according to their sex rather than by their interests, talents, abilities or preferences. It further dictates what our bodies must look like, with varying standards for each sex, disenfranchising those who do not fit into the mold. Fat people are prime targets in this sexist society because society's current concept of the ideal body is very thin. Our "defiance" of the national mania for thinness is seen as willful rebellion, and as such is a punishable "crime." Our bodies are arbitrarily designated "not sexy" and we are denied our very sexuality. And since this is a sexist society, those denied their sex have no place - we are discriminated against socially, we experience discrimination in jobs, medical care, clothing, etc., and at the root of this is sexism – the body counts for all.

The Fat Underground repudiates all forms of sexism and announces to all that we are taking back our human rights.

What is more unusual is the strength of the Fat Underground's analysis of health as a political issue and the intersectional connections they draw with other marginalised groups.
Being fat and being healthy are not antithetical. Fat people are subject to the same diseases which victimize other biological minorities. Blacks, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos also suffer in far higher percentages than the majority population from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, atherosclerosis and mental "disorders" like depression and extreme passivity. We are all subject in varying degrees to the same social, moral and political oppressions. We are also subject to educational, vocational, economic and legal persecutions. Fat people die of the social disease of oppression, not the medical "disease" called obesity.

The Position Paper on Job Discrimination describes how employers use a presumed lack of insurance to deny work to fat people. This insurance excuse continues to this day, in other fields too. Only this week was I not allowed to participate in a leisure activity by an organisation because it claimed it did not have the insurance to cater for people who weigh over 18 stone, which is probably me though it's hard to tell because I don't weigh myself. Rather than get better insurance, or train their staff to work with fat people, I don't get to go white water rafting with my pals. Oh, and this is an organisation that boasts about its accessible sessions!

The Fat Underground's Position Paper on Food also remains timely and should be required reading for all food justice advocates. Check out this electrifying statement:
The Fat Underground opposes this phony asceticism. We call for an attitude toward food and eating that is honest, indulgent and compassionate.

Given its roots in Radical Therapy, it makes sense that there would be a Position Paper on Psychiatry, which develops ideas laid out in the sister paper about fat women and health.
Psychiatrists, with their theories about "over-eating" have ignored the findings of nutritionists that most fat people don't eat any more than most thin people. Their persecution turns some of us into secret compulsive eaters who "need their help".

The Fat Underground add:
Psychiatrists paste the dignity of science onto every-day prejudice. Unless they commit themselves to be advocates of the oppressed and alienated, psychiatrists are very dangerous indeed.


Fat Activism Book Update

I don't know if you've noticed, I've been very quiet about it (joke! joke!) but in January I published a book about fat activism and I have some reflections to share about its first few months out in the world.

Basically, the response has been very positive. I've had a handful of reviews that have all been good enough even when they've been a bit odd, and media encounters that haven't left me wanting to crawl into a hole, as was my experience with my last book about fat.

I have not had a single scrap of hate mail. There may well have been comments on things, but I don't read 'em so I wouldn't know. I'm amazed by the lack of hate and I don't know why I've avoided it, I've even been on Radio 4! Perhaps it's waiting to be unleashed. The Guardian, which frequently trades on anti-obesity sentiment and whose commenters are deeply fatphobic as a result, has not touched the book, perhaps that's why I've been spared.

What I have noticed is that people are open to talking about the book. When I published Fat & Proud in 1998 I was treated like a crank. But this time around it has been different, it is possible now for conversations to take place, despite a war on obesity that has been raging for over 15 years and looks set to continue. Even my dentist wants to talk to me about it. This makes me think that the quiet work of speaking, holding conversations, disagreeing with the dominant viewpoint is having a profound effect. Public health policy around fat remains completely out of touch with this feeling, but perhaps it is inevitable that that too must change. I imagine hell will have to freeze over before weight loss stakeholders relinquish their power, so I suspect there will be a slew of crappy fat activist co-options before too long, or other weird and unhelpful hybrids. The picture isn't completely rosy but I am moved by how much has changed.

The most unsettling thing has been the amount of laughter directed at me. Some of this is because I am funny, but some is not about me being funny. In radical and scholarly spaces I sense a deep need for people to be able to laugh at the fat person, ie me. At one gathering, a pair of thin radical queers laughed loudly through my talk, even though I had stopped making jokes. They hadn't noticed that other people were no longer laughing. At another, a speaker referred to an event that I produced as very jolly, even though I had also spoken about how painful that work had been, they couldn't acknowledge that struggle. I think that fat activism is ludicrous in many ways, that's part of what makes it queer and valuable to me, but meanwhile the funny fat lady stereotype seems to be maintaining its grip on people. In a similar way, I'm still pretty shocked at how many people still find difficulty even saying the word fat. You know this already but fatphobia is deep.

By far the best responses have been from readers. I've been getting to know dance communities in London for a year or so and am really happy that they are supporting my work. It is a lie that fat and normatively sized people have nothing to say to each other or are natural enemies, London's radical dance community are engaging with fat politics and I couldn't be happier.

Other readers have shared photographs of them treasuring the book, being excited about it, being delighted to see it in a shop amongst other political books, not shoved away in the health section. One reader propped the book up in a place that has notoriously fatphobic exhibits and shared a photo of that on social media, as though the ideas in the book has invaded a space where it shouldn't belong. I really love moments like that. Other people, those I wouldn’t expect to be interested, have written to me and told their online networks about the work, saying how important it has been for them. To me this is wonderful and helps put the years of work and worry I have poured into this project into perspective.

I will continue to present talks and discussions about the book over the rest of the year. I post updates on the events page, so please feel free to bookmark it and come to things if you can. Meanwhile, Backdoor Broadcasting recorded a panel discussion that took place this week at Birkbeck University, Fat Activism is Dangerous. You can listen to it for free or download it for later.


08 April 2016

100 Fat Activists #8: Radical Therapy

This eighth post of the series marks the end of the period when the earliest foundations for fat activism as I understand it in my book were put in place.

Radical Therapy was an offshoot of the anti-psychiatry movement as it manifested in the 1960s. This movement had many concerns and approaches, and histories that stretched back to the earlier part of the 20th century. By 1967 theorists and activists were arguing that psychiatry was a suspect science and that mental health services were oppressive. Radical Therapy was a practical critique of the mental health system, which was seen as perpetuating oppression and inequality and acting in the interests of a corrupt dominant culture. Radical Therapy sought to reformulate mental distress as an understandable response to living in oppressive societies. Social justice and social change were understood a means of addressing and healing mental pain. This analysis proposed that people's mental health problems were political and not organic, inevitable, or produced by the individual.

Anti-psychiatry has been heavily criticised but it remains a useful means of understanding the uses of mental health services to profit from, discipline and punish marginalised people. There's still a reluctance in the therapy world to think of therapy as a political act saturated with power. See the excellent documentary And This time its Personal Psychocompulsion & Workfare, for example, a response to the introduction of therapy in British Job Centres to harass people unable to work. Its insistence on acknowledging the diversity of cognitive experience resonates too with the more recent Mad Pride movement which again overlaps with disability politics.

Despite the strength of its critique, in an article published in State and Mind in 1977, Aldebaran disclosed that Radical Therapy, like mainstream therapy, remained hostile to fat people, and that fat liberation was regarded as a dangerous luxury. Writing to the fictional composite Dr Hurvitz, she says, presciently:
"You said, 'Fat liberation may be fine for you, but I have a client in therapy who has to lose 50 pounds or she'll die of diabetes.' You also said the real issue in fat liberation ought to be the 'right to be fat,' and that I should put more emphasis on 'Fat is Beautiful.' I've tried to figure out why those comments make me feel so queasy. Certainly we must come to love ourselves and assert our right, as fat people, to be. But what I come up with is that you want a nice liberal discussion about freedom and beauty, while you and I both know that the most urgent issue is death – the pain and death of fat people. You see fat as suicide, I see weight loss as murder – genocide, to be precise – the systematic murder of a biological minority by organised medicine, acting on behalf of the law- and custom-makers of this society. We differ only in our opinion of what causes fat people's early deaths."
Nevertheless, Los Angeles Radical Feminist Therapy Collective was where Aldebaran presented her preliminary findings about why people might be fat. It was through this work that an early social model of fat was developed: the idea that the real problem is not the fat person, but the society that hates us. In 1973, she published a piece in Sister explaining the theoretical connections between Radical Therapy and fat liberation and announcing the formation of a group to explore this. Feminist Radical Therapy is what helped incubate Aldebaran's ideas and provide the spark that later became fat feminism through community knowledge-sharing, consciousness-raising and understanding social contexts in which problems are located.

Daily aggressions, self-blame and self-hatred continue to contribute to fat people's mental distress. We know as activists that challenging oppression improves fat people's lives. But there is little impetus at the moment to generate the empirical evidence demanded by mental health services to include activism as part of a no-risk, cost-effective repertoire of treatment and support. Fat people's mental health needs remain underserved in a context where normalisation through (profitable) weight loss remains the ultimate therapeutic goal. And of course this is rarely seen as a political issue.

Aldebaran (1973) 'we are not our enemies', Sister, December, 6.

Aldebaran (1977) 'Fat Liberation - A Luxury? An Open Letter to Radical (and Other) Therapists', State and Mind, 6, 34-38.

06 April 2016

Activism, engineering, satire in Tim Hunkin's subversive universe

Me giggling whilst being brainwashed
by one of Tim Hunkin's machines. It tickles!

Tim Hunkin is an artist who makes subversive and humourous arcade machines, automata, ride simulators and all kinds of brilliant stuff. I had the pleasure of visiting his Under the Pier Show in Southwold at the weekend, and not for the first time. If you are ever in the vicinity of his work, make sure you have a supply of 20ps to pop in the slot, you won't regret it. If you have several hours to kill, I sincerely advise you to spend them knocking around his extensive website.

I've been wanting to mention Hunkin on the blog for a while because of three of his pieces: The Doctor, QuickFit and Instant Weightloss. They gently puncture medical pomposity, quackery and the bullshit of weight loss with amazing style and joy.

The Doctor is one of the older machines, made in 1987. You stand in front of the wooden doctor, hold a stethoscope to your chest and he slowly writes you an illegible prescription. The Doctor is old school, to say the least, and oh so recognisable to anyone who has ever had an awkward or horrible encounter in a clinic. I really love the way that Hunkin presents clinical encounters as bewildering and not particularly helpful. Regardless of your ailment, you get the same conveyer-belt style prescription as everyone else. Just like real life!

QuickFit is a ride built from an old toning table. Remember them? A fad that lay at the intersections of weight loss, femininity, beauty and pseudo-exercise. You lie on the table, it moves your body around whilst you watch a strange animated exercise video based on Jane Fonda's iconic workout. Hunkin and his collaborators brilliantly skewer prancing weight loss guru-dom through lo-fi animation and bare-faced cheek. You don't even have to lift a finger.

Instant Weightloss is a stunning piece of work and one of my favourite Hunkin machines of all. You put 40p into the machine and a little suction pipe drops a single piece of popcorn onto a little pedestal. A heat gun then pops the single piece of corn right in front of your eyes, and then delivers it to you via a chute. As this is happening, a mirror bends and gives the optical illusion of making you appear thinner. As with all the machines, the explanatory text is really witty, Hunkin's parody of diet company product claims ("precision-engineed weight-free nutrients") is so spot on.

There are many other machines, Hunkin's website tells you where to find them. I think it's great that the supposedly enlightened and scientific worlds of weight loss and medicalisation are presented here as part of a broader landscape of subjects worthy of satire. Some of his other works are just silly but most have a political edge to them, poking fun at self-importance, scientific arrogance and stupidity. They are activist machines as well as beautiful oddball pieces of art.

05 April 2016

Fat activism by the algorithms


I kind of agree with this, but probably not in the way that these algorithms have been generated. I love wrongness, there's certainly a lot of bullshit flying around at times, and is it dangerous? Yes it is.

30 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #7: NAAFA

NAAFA, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, started out on the East Coast of the USA around New York and New Jersey in 1969 as the National Association to Aid Fat Americans.

I can't remember when I first heard about NAAFA, it must have been some time in the 1980s and, like most people back then, I was amazed that an actual organisation of fat people could exist. It is still an amazing thought, evidence that fat is a social and political identity, that fat people have agency, community, ambition. That NAAFA has been in existence for so long also suggests that fat people have histories and cultures too. These remain radical ideas in a present day context where fat people are usually rendered as passive and pathetically grateful recipients of medical magnanimity.

The group has been through many incarnations, there is a newsletter that has been running for many years, on and off, and the annual conventions have been important meeting places for decades. NAAFA has also spawned a number of spin-offs, I'll say more about them in later posts. NAAFA is frequently positioned as the only way that people do fat activism, particularly by researchers and media-makers who have little other contact with the movement. This is a problem because it obscures the many ways in which fat activism manifests and presents the movement as relatively conservative and as a product of middle America. Despite having a constitution, NAAFA has struggled throughout its existence with problems to do with leadership, membership, direction and resources. It is an important organisation, but not one that necessarily reflects the interests of fat activists; and how could it? We are a very varied bunch.

NAAFA was established primarily by William Fabrey supported by Llewellyn Louderback. John Trapani and Eileen Lefebure helped Fabrey write a constitution and a number of people came together on 13 June 1969 to endorse it. I have found it hard to work out who was there, some names are incomplete or obscure on the documents I have been able to dig up, but Joyce Fabrey and Ann Louderback were present, as were a pair possibly called Susan and William Blowers, and two people called, maybe, Gilberto Guandillo and Mary Ellen something. No doubt there are people – Bill, are you reading this? – who can fill in the details and I will edit this post later.

Given the significance of the organisation the obscurity of these details is alarming, don't you think? During my trawl of fat activist archives when I was researching my book, I found little relating to NAAFA, which is extraordinary and worrying. I was hoping for large repositories of newsletters, convention materials, news clippings, internally-produced histories and publications, perhaps oral histories. But I did not find them. Do they exist? If so, where can they be found? If not, this means that important details and histories may well be lost. This would be a tragedy.

For fat people's histories to exist, we have to treasure them, produce them, maintain them. This involves understanding our lives as being important enough to remember and understand, a hard thing for people who experience a lot of social hatred and denigration. As I see it, a vital part of the work of fat activism is about collecting histories and developing intergenerational conversations. People don't live forever and when they are gone, so too are their memories and insights for the most part. Unless we preserve these important scraps of information for ourselves and for others, I truly believe that we are lost and have little to orientate ourselves towards. I also think we are selling out the fat people who will inevitably come after us, who will certainly have questions about the past.

If anyone wants to take on the work, I have to say that a really expansive, critical and well-researched account of NAAFA is something that I would love to read. Imagine a giant oral history! Meanwhile, there are some historical documents online that are worth a look. The NAAFA website has a small archive of more recent newsletters. The Big as Texas gathering in 2001 produced an excellent transcript of Bill Fabrey's recollections of the early days of NAAFA, and there are a couple of videos, which also offer some clues about this remarkable organisation.

60 Minutes Overtime Staff (1978 and 2012) '60 Minutes Rewind: Fat Pride: Obese Women Rally in the '70s', [online], available: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504803_162-57348478-10391709/fat-pride-obese-women-rally-in-the-70s/

Fabrey, W. J. (2001) 'Thirty-three Years of Size Acceptance in Perspective - How Has it Affected the Lives of Real People?', [online], available: http://members.tripod.com/~bigastexas/2001event/keynote2001.html



23 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #6: Civil Rights

The 1960s Civil Rights movement in the US is what provided a solid political grounding for fat activism, a fact that has been forgotten by many fat activists today and which is particularly troubling given the problems that some areas of fat activism have with racism.

In previous posts in this series, I have referred to Steve Post's Fat-In, Llewellyn Louderback's journalism and Erving Goffman's influential work on stigma. The collective work of black people organising and resisting oppression is absent from much of this work, or perhaps taken for granted, but it is hard to imagine any of these interventions taking place without the framing that the Civil Rights movement brought to issues of social justice. Aldebaran's books offer some hints of this, and perhaps she had other works that she did not donate to the archive, but again, the acknowledgement is tacit.

The Civil Rights movement prompted the politicisation of fat people. When I interviewed Judy Freespirit in 2010, she told me that her fat feminism had emerged as a result of her involvement with the Civil Rights movement in the United States. As a student in California, she had supported a demonstration against racist housing policy organised by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality, established as a non-violent Civil Rights organisation in Chicago). Whilst picketing the college's administration, who were responsible for the policy, Freespirit and her fellow protesters were jeered by passers-by. She noticed that the insults were to do with her being fat. She said: "I was picketing and it had nothing to do with fat, it had to do with the administration being wrong in their discrimination, and people would try to get me by making fat jokes." Freespirit went on to add: "So all of a sudden I realised: 'They are so angry about my being fat, why are they so angry? I'm too heavy and big for them.' You know. I mean. But it's like: 'Ah, this is the way we can get her, because this is the thing that nobody's gonna disagree is not ok.'"

Civil Rights offered an analysis of the misuse of power and of potential means of securing justice. In her excellent book about antidiscrimination law and fat rights, Anna Kirkland writes that the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US is pivotal because it proposes that justice involves addressing systemic discrimination. This is a crucial point, and was later taken up by the early fat feminists who argued that fat is not a case of personal health failings, it is a political issue. They presented fat hatred as a social, political problem that needs political solutions and systemic change, much like the Social Model of Disability, which came later on. Of course this approach has been appropriated and corrupted now through obesity epidemic rhetoric which insists that fat people ourselves are the social problem, a discourse which reproduces hate and discrimination. But the emphasis on rights and non-violence brought to activism through the Civil Rights movement – itself rooted in peace activism – cannot be underestimated and remains at the heart of fat activism today, even though it is obscured and has branched off into debateable rights discourses, such as the right to buy pretty clothes (though perhaps not the rights of developing world sweatshop workers).

Civil Rights and later Black Power also propose a refusal of abjection. Reclaiming beauty, instigating pride, developing cultural aesthetics built on an idea of protesting oppressive norms, well, you can see where I'm going with this. I will make the bold claim that even the most mainstream fat activism today owes acknowledgement to the ground-breaking work that came out of Civil Rights. Indeed, there are many more things that could be said about this, too much for a single blog post.

Having Civil Rights as a fundament of the movement does overlook some of the other forms of activism that I think are as valuable as the methods that emerged during the 1960s. In my book I write about ambiguous fat activism, and micro fat activism, strategies that are queerer and weirder than the political process forms of activism that are generally associated with Civil Rights in the US. I also wonder if the centrality of Civil Rights means that activists struggle against a perfect standard of activism, or rigid ideas about what activism can be. The US-centric nature of this era of Civil Rights also eclipses other Civil Rights struggles that might be of equal value to the movement. British fat activists might look towards the Irish Civil Rights movement, for example, which resisted English occupation and colonialism.

What is most perplexing and upsetting is the absence of fat activism and Civil Rights in the archive. There is no picture to accompany this post because this material is currently invisible to me. Apart from Judy Freespirit's testimony, where is the evidence? I can't accept that she was the only person thinking about these connections. Cathy Cade's photographs of Bay Area lesbian community may offer some material to chew over, she was also a Civil Rights activist who documented fat activism. But where are the black fat activists from those early days? How did the early activism by people of colour become so marginalised in fat activism as it is known today? How can those missing stories and links be found and re-forged?

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

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

16 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #5: Stigma

I'm pretty sure that Erving Goffman was not a fat activist. It's been a while since I picked up a copy of Stigma, and I'm not sure if the book even specifically mentions fat people. Did he ever meet any fat activists? If so I haven't been able to find any documentation, though I love to imagine it. But I'm including this work here because it was a foundational text for early fat activists, and worth a read for anyone interested in the movement.

Goffman is one of the big names of sociology and, yes, he is another dead white guy, so there are a few strikes against him already. But Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, first published in 1963 towards the middle of his career, is surprisingly readable and relatable in a field often noted for its impenetrability.

In this book Goffman explores what it is like to be a stigmatised person. He identifies different kinds of stigma based on character traits, physical difference and group identity. He writes about how stigmatised people manage their stigma, for example through compensation, passing, or through hypervigilance. To Goffman, stigma is a means of social control; by creating a group of shameful outcasts, societies use stigma to keep people in line. He writes about people, he talks to people and reflects their experiences, although he theorises his work, it is built on the people's lived experiences and that's partly why the book is so accessible.

It's not hard to see how fat activists looking for theory and evidence to support their experiences would find this book very powerful. Judy Freespirit mentioned Goffman as an influence on the Fat Underground when I interviewed her in 2010, and there are a great many Fat Studies texts that refer to Stigma. The book is also one of those texts that bridges fat and disability, Goffman writes about impairment quite a bit in Stigma, and it is easy to see that there are many overlaps.

There is an emphasis on reducing stigma in quite a bit of the more progressive scholarly literature on fat and health but I think that this sometimes misses the point by making stigma too much of an individual experience, possibly confusing it with shame. The literature on fat activism is quite patchy as well, and scholars often argue that stigma is the primary concern of the movement. Stigma is important, but there is more to fat activism than that, as I explain and sometimes, unfortunately, the movement has a hand in reproducing stigma.

Stigma remains relevant today as a way of understanding the scapegoating of fat people, or anyone really, as a social mechanism that keeps power in place. No wonder the normals (Goffman's term, a beauty!) get so upset when stigmatised people refuse the mark they have been handed. Stigma is a book of its time (it pre-dates punk, for example, which has been a useful touchstone for me in transforming stigma), its more scholarly than activist though there is a concern with the unfairness of stigma, but one of its enduring effects for me is that powerful though stigmatising may be, it is not inevitable. There's an unrealness about stigma, even though it is often deeply felt, that means that there are possibilities for relinquishing it and of taking back power. This is a point that I try to make in my own book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement.

09 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #4: More people should be FAT

Llewellyn Louderback was a jobbing writer from New York who published an article in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1967, four months after Steve Post's Central Park Fat-In. He may have written the piece earlier, magazine lead-in times can be quite lengthy. I don't know if Louderback went to the Fat-In, I think at that time he may have been more straight-laced than Post, but he was certainly impressed by it. It strikes me that 1967 was when fat activism had a moment of convergence with civil rights, pranksterdom and popular journalism. That late 60s feeling that anything could happen.

In his article, Louderback calls for many of the rights and recognitions that remain preoccupations of fat activists today. He talks about fatphobia, discrimination, thin privilege and draws on his personal experience of being fat and stopping dieting. Like many current activists he cites medical evidence to make his case, and is concerned about the representation of fat people in fashion media. It's amazing how far back these preoccupations go, and interesting that he is a guy writing this when so much of the discourse has been developed by women.

The piece is dated: he refers to his wife but doesn't name her (she was called Ann); he reproduces the now well-debunked myth that Americans are more likely to protest racism than fatphobia; he invokes the Nazis and quotes a somewhat colonial doctor who says that if fat people want to feel alright then they should go to a society "where obesity is worshiped".

Some of what More people should be FAT proposes remains contentious. The idea that fat people are fat because we eat junk food, for example. What fat people eat, the idea of fat people being ignorant about food, the causes of fat, the celebration of junk, and also counter-claims that deny these things are still being hashed out, and vulnerable to appropriation by anti-obesity policymakers.

Louderback makes some curious claims too: that fat hatred is rooted in US puritanism (recent Fat Studies scholars have also argued a case about religiosity and fatphobia), that the American Civil Liberties Union should get on the case (did that ever happen?) and that fat hate represents "the growing power of the group over the individual" (what were his politics at that time, I wonder?).

This article was published 48 years ago though was massively influential, as I explain in my book. It went on to spawn many things but was a relatively short and humble piece of journalism tucked away in a magazine. Louderback was a man who had had enough and couldn't take it any more.

By the way, I've no idea why FAT is capitalised, but I like it.

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


02 March 2016

100 Fat Activists #3: Aldebaran's Books

One of the papers archived in the collection
Do you like to read? Do you own books? What does your bookshelf say about you? Do you take bookshelfies? Looking at people's reading collections can provide some insight as to what they are thinking about, what inspires them, or about the scope of their interior landscape. It can give context to a person.

The Mayer Collection of Fat Liberation is housed at the Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Centre, part of the University of Connecticut Libraries in Storrs. This is a collection of personal papers and reading donated by Vivian Mayer, who was also known as Aldebaran, and now goes by Sara Fishman. Mayer wrote the forward to Shadow on a Tightrope, Aldebaran was one of the founders of The Fat Underground and Fat Liberator Publications, and although Sara left the movement, she is still in contact with some fat activists. She is a pivotal figure in fat feminist activism. Without her, there would be no me, and you would not be reading this blog post.

Aldebaran/Mayer and Sara to a lesser extent appear extensively in my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, though always through secondary sources. She is someone I encountered as an archival presence and her papers mean a lot to me. I tried to go to the Mayer Collection in 2011, it is open to the public though you need to make an appointment. I wanted more insight into her activism but I was thwarted by snow and ice storms and ended up stranded in Hartford for a few days, a great disappointment!

However, all was not lost. Although I never got to read archived correspondence, the finding aid for the archive is pretty extensive and gives you plenty of insight into the material that Mayer was drawing on between 1967 and the mid-1980s. By looking at her books, the periodicals and journals that she lodged with the archive, you can hazard some guesses about the broader contexts through which her style of fat feminism emerged.

It's clear that she was reading material from the radical left of the 1960s, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and all the usual suspects. There's also a copy of the Catholic Agitator in there, books on communes and radical pedagogy. Rex Weiner, who began his career in the underground, has a presence, it looks as though he collaborated on a piece with NAAFA in the 1970s. This emphasis on the radical reinforces my belief that fat feminist activism is a force for social change, you could call it a revolutionary movement although, as I argue in my book, it is vulnerable to gentrification and neoconservatism.

Of similar interest, there are books about environmental activism, mostly dating from the 1970s. This brings Elaine Graham-Leigh's work to mind, how fat people are currently being blamed for climate change. But Mayer's collection shows that fat feminist activists were probably engaged with early environmental activism too. It's amazing and depressing what can get overlooked in contemporary fatphobic rhetoric.

Works by the author Ann ForFreedom dominate the feminist materials in the collection. I have gleaned some scraps of information about her online, which may be way off the mark, but the gist of it is that she's a mover and shaker in the Californian pagan feminist witchcraft scene. What this means for fat feminist activism I have no idea, but I would like to know! Is this also a social movement of witches?! Mayer's collection also includes underground feminist comics by Roberta Gregory, Aline Kominsky and Diane Noomin – some of my favourites too.

A small group of books are concerned with medical self-advocacy, and navigating healthcare. There is one copy of a Radical Therapy journal, I would have expected to have seen more because this was a movement that incubated The Fat Underground. Perhaps Mayer couldn't bear to part with her own copies and they were never archived.

There are a few publications that I struggled to make sense of. Last Gasp published The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp by Lee Marrs, which may have been an underground comic and certainly sounds intriguing. There's also a publication called Slim News, published in Brooklyn at some point, is this an ironic title, I wonder, or some sort of backlash against fat activism?

The Mayer Collection is located within a bigger archival collection of activism and civil rights materials. It still excites me to see this. Where fat people are usually categorised as medical problems, this archive demonstrates that there are other important ways of looking at fat, and that fat people have been at the heart of social change for some time and, hopefully, will remain there.

PS. There's more about fat activism and archiving in this post.

24 February 2016

100 Fat Activists #2: Steve Post's Fat-In Placard

I started the series of 100 fat activists last week with the 25,000 year-old Venus of Willendorf and from there I'm jumping straight to 1967. What happened in the middle? There are cultural historians of fat and weight loss who can fill in some of the gaps, Elena Levy-Navarro, or Hillel Schwartz, for example. But the genealogies of fat activism that I am interested in kick-in towards the end of the 1960s.

In my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I plot the beginnings of fat feminism in an event produced by the WBAI radio host Steve Post on 4 June 1967 (some sources say it was on 3 June) at Sheep Meadow, Central Park, New York City. Around 500 people turned up for the spectacle, which I describe in depth in my book.

One of the sources I used for this section was Steve Post's own autobiography, published in 1974 and long out of print. I found a digitised copy floating around online at AmericanRadioHistory.com around the time that Post died in 2014. I can't tell you how excited I was to find this document. Although there were newspaper reports about the Fat-In, up until reading Post's own account I had never seen pictures of it. But here not only was there an explanation and description of the Fat-In by its creator, but a few pictures. I'd often wondered if I'd imagined this event because it's such an oddball moment in time, and weirdly influential, but here was proof that it really happened. Maybe there are other photographs out there too.

A photo spread from Steve Post's autobiography
depicting his Fat Power placard, a protester
and a defaced poster of Twiggy


On 20 March 2015, a memorial service was held for Post at Symphony Space in New York. On the stage was his Fat-In placard. He hadn't continued to have a public life as a fat activist, but I guess he kept a placard from the day, it must have been important to him but I wonder if he ever knew just what it had helped spark.

By the way, I can easily draw a line from The Fat-In through the beginnings of NAAFA, The Fat Underground and beyond to things happening today. But thinking of the Fat-In as the beginning also obscures fat feminist roots in the civil rights movement. This may be one of the ways in which people of colour could have been hidden in fat activist histories. There doesn't have to be one starting point, there can be many concurrent roots. Perhaps there was an equally important event, or series of moments, that inspired fat feminists who came out of civil rights. If you know about this, if there is any evidence, please share what you have.

Levy-Navarro, E. (2010) Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American Culture, Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.

Post, S. (1974) Playing in the FM Band: A Personal Account of Free Radio, New York: The Viking Press.

Schwartz, H. (1986) Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat, New York: The Free Press.

22 February 2016

Fat Activist Vernacular and other zines

I have been making zines – small homemade publications – for some time and I have just published two new titles. Buy them here.

Fat Activist Vernacular

As I was finishing up my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I thought I'd take the pressure off a little by writing a zine. 15,000 words later I ended up with this behemoth, and there's still so much more to be said.

The Vernacular is a list of words and their definitions, like a dictionary, but a lot less formal. I wrote it because I thought people not in the know might like a glimpse of the subcultural riches of fat activism, and because activists might like to read about some of the beauty that our movement has generated. The zine is funny and serious, a deadly combination.

"When you talk about fat people the language of power is the language of medicine and public health. But the words I have collected here are words that subvert that power."

Some examples from the Vernacular:

Disease
It has become a popular view amongst obesity experts, that being fat is a disease. Some of them think it is contagious. This is part of the on-going project to medicalise and control fat people, which they depend on for a living and for their status as experts.

Doctor
The boss of you and everything.

Draw attention upwards
Wear a piece of jewellery, a scarf, a fancy collar, or have huge hair to direct attention upwards towards your face and hope that people don't notice your apparently awful body. Pernicious and pathetic fashion advice of yesteryear.

Drugs
A million goldmines will erupt for whichever corporation finds the magic pill that makes fat people thin and keeps them coming back for more. The race is already on. Meanwhile, weight loss drugs have significant side effects including feeling wired, getting an eating disorder, major organ failure, pants-shitting, impaired cognition and death. Some need injecting a couple of times a day and at the moment you are unlikely to lose a lot of weight on any of them.

Dummies
Fat dummies are used by health professionals and firefighters, and possibly others, to train people in how to handle fat people. They use dummies instead of talking to fat people.


Encounters with Nature

This is an autobiographical zine with stories from my life told through happenstance meetings with creatures. 

The vignettes include ants, a bearded fireworm, horeshoe crabs, birds, deer, fruit bats and many more. The zine explores different themes, such as regret, transformation, ethics and magnificence. A quiet zine.

The zine is about me being out in the world as a fat dyke, and a fat girl, someone who isn't assumed to have much going on. It shows me as an embodied, thinking, feeling person.

"I am in Germany for a period of time, feeling deeply alone and preoccupied with a lover. I am supposed to be more sociable than I feel so I make excuses and take long train journeys across the land as a means of making time to be by myself. It is spring and there are many hares in the fields as the train goes by. Hares are my favourites. They're not cute like rabbits, they run and fight, their legs are long, holding them high off the ground, they are mystical and lovely in art. I get to my destination, walk to the beach and lie face down in the sand for several hours, fully clothed, in a restless sleep."

Get copies of my zines

Throughout my zine-making life I have made small runs of zines very cheaply to give away for free. I will keep doing this, but now I'm interested in writing longer zines which require more production.

I have built a little online shop where you can buy my zines. Fat Activist Vernacular and Encounters with Nature are up there, as well as Simon Murphy's exquisite zine Different Times, in which I feature, about queer, drag, punk and disability in London during the 1990s.

If you would like accessible versions, please contact me.

Buy my zines.


15 February 2016

100 Fat Activists #1: The Venus of Willendorf

To celebrate the publication of my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I am doing a series of blog posts about some of the stuff I came across during the research period that people might not otherwise get to see. I'm ripping off the BBC project, in association with The British Museum, called A History of the World in 100 Objects, in that there are 100 things, I'm listing them in more or less chronological order, and it will take me a year or so to blog 'em all. But that's where the similarity ends. Where that list is founded on a series of values I don't share, this one is queerer, more feminist and more unruly.

1. The Venus of Willendorf

The Venus is a statue of a fat black woman that was dug up by archeologists in Austria in 1908. She's at least 25,000 years old, and maybe the earliest carving of a human. She's fat and I'm not talking chubby.

She's an important figure for fat activists because she shows that people have known what a fat person looks like for a very long time. She disproves the rhetoric, popularised by the War on ObesityTM that fat people are a recent aberration, the product of junk lifestyles.

I'm calling her a black woman because of what I take to be her hair, it looks braided and black to my 21st century eyes. There are counter-claims that her head might not be a head at all, but a handle for an object. It is important to make people of colour visible within fat activism, and it would make sense that this figure who represents a root of some kind, should be black within a present-day activist rhetoric of centring black people. Maybe activists of another time would see her differently. In claiming her as black, fat activists might also want to critique the naming of her as venus (there are other venus figurines too), which has racialised connotations, and her positioning and interpretation within Western archaeology.

Edited to add: Karen D. has noted that the Venus can also be seen as disabled. This makes me think about how much of her is obscured by taken for granted claims.

Whether the Venus herself is a fat activist is also fodder for conjecture. She's usually called a fertility goddess, perhaps based on colonial anthropological assumptions about fat black femininity and the depiction of genitals. My feeling is that she could represent anything because the person or people who made her are now dust themselves, and people now will never know about her original context. Interpretation is all we have. To me, her existence is enough in itself and, as far as I'm concerned, it all starts with her.

What I do know is that she remains a powerful figure. You can go and see her in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. You might also want to search for vernacular images of her online, Venus of Willendorf tattoos, for example, or Venus of Willendorf crafting. I like it when people embellish her by adding feet, a face, a setting, nipples or whatever. Sometimes she's fatter or has bigger tits, as though people now want her to be more than she is. This perpetual re-engagement shows that she is still relevant and that her age just makes her all the more compelling.

Image credit: Jorge Royan

18 January 2016

Acknowledging the book's supporters

It's taken years to get Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement together and the experience has been a strange mixture of aloneness and putting things into a public realm. I did quite a lot of public speaking over its main research period, from 2008-2012, and of course there's blogging. But the work of putting a load of complex, scattered ideas together into something coherent, which started with the thesis, is a solitary thing shared only with a few close people. Perhaps what I'm saying is that I have felt alone in holding the full picture of this research and the book in my head.

Now things are changing.

I have started speaking about the book in public. Last week we had its launch, and yesterday I spoke at a queer community gathering. Both were packed out. There are more events on the way and I will post them as details emerge.

I'm struggling to identify my feelings in making this work public and being received in such an encouraging way. It's overwhelming. At the launch I remembered what it felt like being 15 years old and how unimaginable it would have been that I would grow up to experience people caring about fat stuff. What has been especially moving to me over the past week is the mixture of people who are finding things in the work. There was a time when I thought that there was only a small readership of fat people for stuff like this. I was wrong. My secret belief that fat resonates with people in many different political ways rings true. I suspect that people are as hungry as hell for a book like this, and lord knows I want to see more work in the world that shares and builds on its breadth.

By the way, I imagine that the book will find readers who hate it too, or people who haven't read it but have already decided that it shouldn't exist. I am steeling myself for that. There will likely be people who take the book and appropriate my ideas as theirs without crediting me. It's happened with this blog often enough. Oh well, no one expects much from a fat person! Putting work into the world is pleasurable and also painful at times but so far I have been lucky.

Even though I have felt alone, I have not really been alone. There are many people I need to thank, and here is a little list of them:

Some of the people's legs at the launch last week at
Gay's The Word bookshop
Pic by Debi Withers
All the people who consented to be interviewed for the project.

People who gave me direct emotional, intellectual and practical support. Between 50 and 100 people who I won't name because they value their privacy. This included talking things through with me, hosting me, cooking meals for me, making sure I was safe, caring about me and checking in.

Everyone associated with HammerOn Press.

The institutional advocates: The Irish Social Sciences Platform; University of Limerick, Coventry University.

The organisations that gave me platforms to publish, show, develop and discuss my work: The Association of Size Diversity and Health; Bad Art Collective; Big Bum Jumble; Bildwechsel Hamburg; Bird Club; Body & Peace Workshop; The British Film Institute; The British Sociological Association; Burger Queen; Canterbury Christ Church University; A Carnival of Feminist Cultural Activism; Club Milk; Coventry Peace Festival; Department of International Studies and Social Science, Coventry University; Department of Media, Music, Communication & Cultural Studies, Macquarie University; Entzaubert Queer DIY Film Fest; Economic and Social Research Council Fat Studies and Health at Every Size seminar series; Fat, Awesome and Queer; Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society; The Fat of the Land: A Queer Chub Harvest Festival; The Fattylympics; The Feminist Art Gallery; Gay's The Word; Gender Matters at King's College London; Goldsmith's University; Incite; Department of Sociology, Warwick University; Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage Hamburg; London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival; London Zine Symposium; My Mouth Your Ear; New York University Press; NOLOSE; National Portrait Gallery; Palgrave; Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association; Power Queers; Project O and all the dancers and everyone associated with SWAGGA; Queer Images Edmonton; Raw Nerve Books; Rebel Bellies; Riots Not Diets; Ryerson University; Scumbag; Sister Spit; Sociology Compass; Soggettiva; Somatechnics; thirdspace; Tate Modern; Theatre Royal Stratford East; Well Now; Vignette Press; Villa Magdalena K.

All the reviewers, the ReTweeters, the supportive commenters, the people who have put me in touch with people who want to support the book, the translators, the people who have showed up for this work, the organisers and inviters, all the pre-orderers, the readers, the encouragers.

Ack, I know I've forgotten people. Please forgive me.

I imagine there will be more thanks to make as time goes on. As I said, I feel overwhelmed and very humbled by the response so far in these early days of the work.

Normal snark will be resumed shortly. Right now I need to lie down.

06 January 2016

Fat Feminism, missing women and conversations unspoken

A little while back, my girlfriend's neighbour got married to a man and had a clear-out of a load of lesbian feminist books from the late 1980s. She offered them to my girlfriend and said that a friend had left them. There was a great collection of about 30 books, popular genres like humour, detective fiction, romance. A real throwback to a different time, when lesbian feminist book publishing was in full swing.

I've been stressed about getting my own book together, which has manifested as insomnia, so my girlfriend has been reading these books to me to help me nod off at night. We may be postmodern queers but Lesbian Bedside Stories 2 has given us a lot of pleasure!

The other night she read a short story from that collection by Amanda Hayman called The Gift. It's about a fat Western woman working in Tokyo who gets picked up by a smooth operator and has an exciting fling with her. The story explores the protagonist's internalised fatphobia, and how the love of a normatively sized and rather glamorous lover helps her to heal.

I was pretty sure that I recognised the author's name and, the next day, when I checked my fat activism bibliographic database (yes, nerd alert, I have built one of these) I found her as the author of an article about fat oppression from 1986. Her article had led to quite a discussion in the journal in which it was published, including a fatphobic backlash piece! I did a quick internet search for her, bought a copy of the first Lesbian Bedtime Stories collection, and found that Hayman had a story there too and had published a few things about fat around that period.

1986 was pretty early to be writing about fat oppression in the UK. As I understand it, things didn't get rolling until a couple of years later, in the preamble to the Fat Women's Conference in 1989. It strikes me that Hayman is an important figure in British fat feminist activism. I'm currently feeling a really strong yearning to know more about her, to sit and have a coffee together, if she's up for it. There is so much I want to ask her. But I can't find her.

There are others whose work was instrumental in developing fat feminism in the UK. Heather Smith and Tina Jenkins spring to mind but I've never been able to get in contact with them. Their work is central to me. I've had brief exchanges with Angela English and Rita Keegan, who were also part of the London Fat Women's Group. It is too late to find Barbara Burford, she died in 2010, and Mandy Mudd too. I feel these absences very strongly. Conversations never had, continuity broken, transgenerational fat feminist activism thwarted; I miss these women. There is so much we could tell each other. I dream of them finding me, or of someone knowing them and putting us in touch with each other.

My own book is now out, but I wonder if I will ever stop trying to understand fat activism. The historicising of the movement is so underdeveloped, especially the older fat feminisms upon which so much of fat activism is built. It bothers me so much that their work is barely known whereas other stuff, often mediocre, gets trumpeted as the next big thing. I imagine I will always keep an eye open for the odd random name or connection that pops up, even when my girlfriend is reading me to sleep. I can't let it go, there are so many dots that need joining up, it's a monumental puzzle. No wonder I have a hard time dropping off at night.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is now available through HammerOn Press and all good booksellers.

Bean, L., Duguid, B. and Burford, B. (1987) 'Body Consciousness', Spare Rib, 182, 20-21.

Hayman, A. (1986) 'Fat Oppression', Gossip: A Journal of Lesbian Feminist Ethics, 3, 66-72.

Hayman, A. (1989 and 1990) in Woodrow, T. (ed) Lesbian Bedtime Stories vols 1 and 2. Willits, CA: Tough Dove Books.

Jenkins, T. and Farnham, M. (1988) 'As I Am', Trouble + Strife, 13.

Jenkins, T. and Smith, H. (1987) 'Fat Liberation', Spare Rib, 182, 14-18.

Mitchell, L. (1986) 'Skinny Lizzie Strikes Back: an apologia for thin women's liberation', Gossip: A Journal of Lesbian Feminist Ethics, 3, 40-44.

Smith, H. (1989) 'Creating a Politics of Appearance', Trouble + Strife, 16 (Summer), 36-41.