12 August 2008

Fat and disability activism, when small changes make a difference

I was walking in the park on Sunday and I noticed a new addition. At first I thought the park bench had been vandalised, but then I noticed that the gap was intentional. Then the penny dropped: it's an accessible bench, designed for a wheelchair user to sit with non-disabled people.

It's not the first time I've seen accessible park furniture in Newham, where I live. At another local park there is a roundabout designed so that a wheelchair can be strapped onto it. But I felt moved by this peaceful bench and it reminded me of the idea that small changes can make a significant difference in people's quality of life, and that considerable attitudinal change can be exemplified by very mundane things. It's not so long ago that the idea of disabled and non-disabled kids – and adults – mixing together was unimaginable.

So this led to a train of thought, one to which I often return, about what a world that was trying to challenge fatphobia might look like, and what the small, everyday differences between now and then might be. I concluded that accessible park furniture is definitely up there on my own personal wish-list.

There's another thread to this discussion, which I'll come back to another time, which is about so-called obesogenic environments. Places that encourage people to be fat. There's a lot of bunkum tied up in this discourse, but I'm interested in taking it in a different direction and thinking more closely about what a fat-friendly environment could look like.

Anti-obesity campaigns: minimising and prettifying weight loss surgery

I'm not a huge believer in guilty pleasures, like Patti Smith I seek pleasure and I have no guilt, but reading Oprah magazine is certainly one of my dark little secrets because there's always something fantastically body-hating in it. This month is no different.

The surgical interventions described in Sara Reistad-Long's perky article Beyond Stomach Stapling: What's New and Better on p116 can only be described as chilling and hideous. Her article is a revolting, clueless and uncomfortable read, even though she signs off with a jolly "Whichever approach takes off, one thing is certain: Patients struggling with obesity have plenty to be hopeful about." No no no! Also, don't ask for clarification on that "teeny sewing machine," believe me, you don't want to know about it.

But what really grabbed me about this piece was the illustration chosen to go with it. Art Director Ted Keller must have been having a funny turn when he commissioned this image by Eddie Guy. Maybe he doesn't know what gastric bypass really looks like, or maybe he does and he knows it ain't bright and shiny magazine fodder.

So what does this image say to you about what weight loss surgery is about? It'll make you smile! It'll make you look just like a skinny white blonde woman! Pretty pink balloons in your tummy! I mean, really, what the…?!

10 August 2008

Venus of Willendorf discovered 100 years ago

Belated birthday wishes to the Venus of Willendorf, unearthed in Austria 100 years ago.

At 25,000 years old, the Venus is proof that humanity knew what a fat woman looked like at pretty much the dawn of time. To my mind she says pfffft! to the idea that obesity is a modern scourge.

I had the good fortune to visit the Naturhistorische Museum in Vienna a few years ago, and to see the Venus for myself. I am possibly one of the least woo-woo people on the planet, but the experience was very moving and validating, I'd even say it was spiritual if I believed in that kind of thing. The museum shop is also pretty hot, with a ton of Venus-related gewgaws at very reasonable prices, hehe.

Anyway, 2008 is Venus year, the museum has a load of stuff planned for it, check it out, if you can.

This reminds me that it would be interesting to compile a series of travel spots, significant places for fat people. A pilgrimage to see the Venus is one possibility, but what about Western Samoa and Nauru, where, according to this rubbish article the slender have been driven almost to extinction, or a holiday in Newham, my home borough, which happens to be the fattest place in London. A visit to Maldon could also be included, the town has several sights commemorating Edmund Bright, there's even a road named after him. Kitsch fans might want to check out Elvis' kitchen at Graceland (seen it!), or maybe Cass Elliott's floral kaftans, which must surely be on display somewhere.

Any other suggestions?

01 August 2008

Media: stereotyping fat activists

There's been quite a debate over on Fat Studies about Glen Gers' new film, Disfigured. It's the story of a friendship between a fat woman and a thin anorexic woman, and explores themes around – obviously – bodies and self-acceptance. Here's the IMDB entry for it, and the official site.

So there's been some discussion about the way the film depicts fat activists. As Rachel Richardson puts it in her review on The F Word, it is not "a valentine to fat people or to the [fat acceptance] movement," but nevertheless she finds it an interesting and thought-provoking piece. I don't know if this film has a planned release in the UK. I haven't seen it yet, but I am interested in doing so, despite other criticisms levied against it.

Meanwhile, I went to see Batman the other night. The film was pretty forgettable, but I was struck by an advert that played before the main feature. It was one of those VW Independent Cinema ads, part of the See Films Differently series, where apparently ordinary members of the public (who are actors working from a script) offer their own idiosyncratic readings of well-known films.

In this one, a fat woman offers her analysis of the last scenes of Titanic. I'm paraphrasing, but she says something about Leo slipping away from Kate meaning that if you're fat you can't count on blokes sticking around for you. The lines are delivered in a world-weary way, almost sarcastically, and it's supposed to be wry and funny. It's not on YouTube yet, I can't find a free version of it online, but you can pay to download it.

It's hard not to be obsessed by the way that fat people and fatness are represented in the media, and it's no wonder that these concerns underpin a huge amount of fat liberation energy. Now it seems that both Disfigured and the VW ad might be the beginnings of a new strand of representation and enquiry, that is: how fat activists are portrayed.

So far it's not looking good! Fat activists are crabby, out of touch, defensive, read too much into things, and are judgmental and laughable. I certainly know some people in the movement who are like this, though it's disconcerting to see them reflected on a screen as the whole of the scene, and I feel as though I'm witnessing the birth of a new kind of fat stereotype. Perhaps in time there will be more generous depictions of fat liberationists, but given the way that fat in general is portrayed in the media I don't hold out any hope for this, though I'm sure that fat lib media analysts will get on the case pretty sharply soon enough.

I'm not going to be depressed about it, it just seems like same-old-same-old to me, though I may roll my eyes from time to time. I'm glad to be in a privileged position where I am able to make my own thoughts about this stuff public without having to do it through someone else's distorting lens. Where the media casts such an unkind gaze over fat people of all kinds, here I am, here we fat activists are, looking straight back at them defiantly.