30 October 2009

Media: stereotyping fat activists like Kathryn Srodecki

Kathryn Szrodecki's piece for the BBC about discrimination against fat people has sparked a flurry of UK media interest that is making me want to bang my head against the wall.

In theory you'd think that more recognition for fatphobia would be a good thing. Some fat activists are glad that these stories are appearing, and whilst I agree that it's probably better they're out in the world, I'm not pathetically grateful for this representation. Accounts such as the attack on Marsha Coupe are being presented through the prism of a fatphobic media whose only language for fat is steeped in prurience and tragedy, they bring to mind the disability activist slogan: Piss on Pity.

This BBC news web's magazine article is one such related piece. It makes me want to scream, and not just because of the preposterous headless fatty measuring his tummy that they've chosen to illustrate it. Why this picture, picture editors? Why? Why?

Firstly, the promo link (the little link with the picture that leads to the main article) features the text: "Why do some of us hate fat people so much?" What does this text say about the assumed reader of the piece? Who is this "us"? The subtle language in this tiny little link normalises hatred as just one of those things that some of us project.

Secondly, the fat people in the article have their weights listed, but nobody else does, especially not the professionals quoted. I don't understand this. Is it to assure the reader that these people are really, properly fat? Their weights are helpfully given in imperial and metric measures too, what's with that?

Thirdly, there's the reliance on The Expert to explain things for us. Unfortunately Obesity Experts have little expertise in my life, especially not the 'specialist' at a 'university hospital' and 'honorary medical director' Dr Ian Campbell of Weight Concern, who is trotted out once again to give his moronic and ill-informed comments. Whilst hand-wringing about stigma (which has nothing to do with his work in 'Obesity' apparently) he is quoted here as suggesting that hatred is innate. "The result is the people who need the most help don't seek it. They are left feeling guilty and undeserving." This seems compassionate at first sight but the kind of help he's talking about is very limited because his only frame of reference for fat people is as medical management projects. Nowhere is the suggestion that help could involve getting some rad fatty politics, for example, or finding fat community that isn't tied to weight loss in some way. And I don't feel guilty or undeserving of Weight Concern's attention, they can sod off, they're part of the problem but are unable to see it. (The BBC links to Weight Concern too, imagine the traffic they must get, lovely free publicity).

Lastly, this article is loaded with clichés. 'Some people are fat and happy,' 'people who hate fat people do so because they hate themselves'. Fatness, bodies, embodiment, hatred, stigma, these are all ferociously complicated parts of human experience. This kind of journalistic simplification reduces the complexity into meaninglessness.

Snarking on the media has become the main focus of much fat activism, usually without any knowledge of how media is produced. I find this tiresome, a dead end that rarely translates into action, and an activity that makes me feel shitty and powerless. Anyone can bitch about the abundance of crappy representations of fat people, it's so easy to do, but how can the situation be made better? What would it take to improve fat representation? Is such a thing even possible given the vast spread of media today?

Creating media toolkits and training for journalists might be an option, but these too are problematic in terms of whose interests they represent, or their relationship to censorship. Having our own Experts might also help, but the activism that is meaningful to me supports the democratisation of expertise, The Expert is a paradigm that doesn't work for me, which means that having a handful of representatives is also going to be a sensitive issue. Taking control of media and making our own media makes sense to me, though this will likely always be a small-scale endeavour.

Is it possible for mainstream media to get it right? Just so you know, Jezebel.com has been producing some righteous fat-related content lately, thanks possibly to an alliance with Kate Harding, they even have a fatpanic tag, though as usual don't bother reading the comments.

Interview: Erin Remick

Her best friends are a dinosaur and a cat, and when she looks in the mirror she sees a demented panda. Welcome to Erin Remick's all-singing all-dancing world o' fat activism. Fat Dinosty, her beautiful video series, has enjoyed screenings to appreciative audiences in the US, UK and Germany, and her longer work, Embodied Revolution, explores the intersections between bodies, difference, identity and more. I wanted to know more about this gal and her projects, so I sent her an email and asked her some questions. Luckily she replied, and this is what she said.

How did you get into fat stuff?

My lovely friend Nora Bee got me into fat activism. I’m not sure if she realises this but she totally nudged me into my first moments of body consciousness. I like using the word conscious because I feel like it implies deep personal reflection and work versus limiting our thoughts about bodies to what the surrounding culture and media has to say. I’ve always been sceptical of beauty ideals, and have probably been a feminist since I understood what the word equality meant, but I never realised how much all the negative crap* had infiltrated my body until I met Nora.

Growing up, I kept myself above self-hate by using the phrase, "it’s what is on the inside that counts" as my personal mantra. It only took me 20 years to figure out that ignoring my body so I could focus on my spirituality and brains was detrimental to my personal growth (I was a really religious and nerdy kid). Nora really helped me with that by being my friend and one of the first people who ever talked candidly to me about their body without hesitation, question, or insecurity.

My second nudge, which was more like a punch in the gut, came from Gloria Anzaldúa. In high school I had read This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. It was probably the first feminist book I ever read and it completely shaped my activism and feminist identity. A few years later it was reading Interviews/Entrevistas, a compilation of interviews with Anzaldúa, which drastically shifted the way I thought about my body and all bodies.

Anzaldúa is often noted for her writings about the borderlands but much of her work focusing on bodies and spiritual activism has been overlooked. At a very young age Anzaldúa began to separate herself from her body due to a rare hormonal dysfunction that left her in immense pain starting in early childhood, much of her writing about bodies entails the personal journey of remembering her own.

Her pain and separation felt very real to me and pushed me to go back into my life and essentially remember my own body’s history. A lot of the writing I’ve done for myself and in my zine tends to focus on that concept of remembering. I guess you can say that Anzaldúa reminded me that I exist on this planet in a body. It’s a bit strange when I put it that way, but I think that’s the truth. Everything I do for body activism is because of and for Gloria Anzaldúa and her life’s work. I get kind of choked up thinking about it sometimes because I truly do not know where I would be without her words in my life.

*that’s my eloquent term for fatphobia, queerphobia, sexism, etc etc

How do you explain Fat Dinosty to people who have never seen it?

It’s about a fat girl, me, and a dinosaur, Sebastian, who have lots of fun while deconstructing fatphobia and other bad stuff. Oh, and there is an androgynous kitty too!

Hmmm.. maybe it’s just one of those things you have to see to understand.

What are your plans for Fat Dinosty?

Well, I’m currently writing the next episode and planning to shoot at the end of November if all goes well. I’m actually going to school right now for a video production certificate, so I’m hoping to take advantage of the fancy equipment while I can and maybe even work on Fat Dinosty for a class project, now wouldn’t that be awesome?

I definitely want to keep the series going. My sweetheart is helping me a lot with the writing and that’s a lot of fun. I think we’re a good team.

It’s been so amazing to see the response to the project. That definitely keeps me motivated and upbeat about it all as well. I’m all about bringing more fat positivity into the video realm, and it’s pretty clear that Sebastian is needed in the world!

I'm interested in how you use cuteness in Fat Dinosty, these films are amazingly cute, so cute, insanely cute! Is cuteness a conscious decision, or an activist strategy for you? Tell me about the cuteness!

This question is really funny to me because a few years ago I wrote an alarming amount about cuteness and its relation to fat.

I’ve been called 'cute' all my life but rarely anything else like 'sexy,' 'attractive,' 'hot,' 'beautiful,' etc. In my contemplating, I linked this phenomenon to the idea that my fatness somehow made people think I looked childish and therefore 'cute.' Part of my deconstructing involved a lot of consideration about my chubby hands and how they remind me of little kid hands. I still feel a lot of truth in this theory and often believe I’m not taken seriously because I’m fat, or like someone would like to pat me on the head when I do something good. It’s weird but I totally feel it. For a lot of us fat folks, growing up we are told we will 'grow out of' our 'baby fat.' So, in some weird way, it’s like the world thinks I haven’t grown up when they have because I still have baby fat and therefore haven’t acted enough like an adult to grow out of it.

Maybe Fat Dinosty is my subconscious attempt to debunk this by being ridiculous and grotesquely cute. I like to think of it that way. Plus I really like to draw people in with cute shiny things and then make them learn something or think differently about an issue without realizing it until they’ve been brainwashed. Yes!

Embodied Revolution brings together gender and body activism. What is it that makes these such crucial intersections? How can activist alliances be built around gender and body stuff? I think it can be hard to create bridges between communities where there may already be fat- and/or transphobia.

My own activism greatly focuses on the intersection of oppressions and understanding the importance of this when creating movements for social change. When I originally set out to film Embodied Revolution I intended to focus on interviewing people involved in gender activism but that shifted into something much more inclusive as the project progressed. I learned so much just by talking with people and found within these stories a very simple connection, the body. Over and over it became clear that most of this work focused on healing communities that had experienced discrimination based on physical appearance.

One of the most enlightening comments for me came from Amanda Piasecki, a fat activist who considers herself a body autonomist. She said that fat bodies are generally considered public property and can be commented upon without question or consequence. This concept of bodies being public property can also be applied to folks who fall somewhere outside of the 'appropriate' gender roles set by our culture. The more and more I started to consider this idea, the more I realised how much it applied to a great deal of 'isms.' Our bodies are constantly being judged for one reason or another; skin tone, shape, ability, fat content, sex, symmetry, gender presentation, etc. It seems simple to me that the fight for equality often begins with the body. We all fight, every day, for the right to live in this body we’re given without being questioned, judged, discriminated against, or attacked. That message should ring true to nearly every social justice movement. Although it’s a simple concept it can be a powerful way to connect all these issues on an incredibly tangible and for some, even a spiritual level.

I definitely feel you when you say it’s hard to create bridges within communities when there may be fatphobia/transphobia. I think a lot of this goes back to the idea that bodies are considered public property. We’ve kind of learned from the media, our families, and peers, what bodily things are okay to judge people for. Fat and gender both generally exist in the 'it’s okay to comment and place judgment' category, which can make it incredibly difficult to go into a situation where you know this to be true. Sometimes all I have to do to deal with something like that is to remember how far I’ve come within my own self-acceptance and to remember that no matter what a person might appear to look like, pretty much everyone has experienced body hatred at some point. I think it’s valuable to focus on how our issues are similar and create a common bond with that, then open up about what our needs are as a fat community, or genderqueer community, or what have you.

What needs to happen for people to be able to see this film?

Sadly, I haven’t done a showing in over a year but I’m definitely open to it. I’ve also considered having copies made to sell for a good while but financially I have just not been able to do it. Originally I thought that I would be travelling and showing the film more, but life happens I guess. Part of me thinks that I stopped focusing so much on that simply because I still consider the film a work in progress. It was for my senior thesis and initially I was planning on creating a 20 minute piece but, as things like this often do, it sort of took a life of its own and decided to be much more than that. Because it was for my thesis I ended up having to edit a 90 minute documentary in 6 months, hello stressful and challenging! There are a lot of voices that got left out in the rush and lots of ideas I’d like to revisit in the future. Aside from that, I do believe it’s important that people have access to the film to be able to hear about the social justice work that the amazing interviewees are involved in. I try to keep in touch with anyone who wants copies and figure out a way to get one to them. So yeah, if you want one just email me and I’ll try to work something out!

What kind of films would you like to make in the future?

I really want to make a young adult fantasy movie with queer leading roles. I’m still embarrassingly obsessed with fantasy movies like Return to Oz and The Neverending Story from my childhood. I think working on something like that would be the most magical and thrilling thing.

Other than that, I would love to film more documentaries. Working on Embodied Revolution was so empowering for me and just felt good. Making documentaries completely validates people and what they do/who they are. I read this book once called The Feminine Face of God where this woman interviewed women from a wide range of religions and spiritual practices who were considered spiritual leaders in their communities. In the intro, the author talked about how some of the women cried when she asked them to participate in the book because no one had ever asked them to talk about that part of their lives before. I thought about that a lot when shooting and editing Embodied Revolution. So much passion and work goes unrecognised. I can’t believe the stories and inspiration that exists around me, sometimes it’s too much to even think about!

People fascinate me and making documentaries lets me ask questions that I normally would not or could not ask in a regular setting. I’m a really introverted person but if I have an excuse, like making a documentary, to get to know someone and hear their story then it’s the perfect way to get over my shyness.

I think I am a sociologist at heart so it makes sense that I have such an interest in documentaries. I’d like to go to grad school for sociology at some point and find a way to link my video skills with this study. My main interest is social justice movements, it’s super fascinating to me how they are created and sustained. I can see myself interviewing hundreds of people about their activism and some day making a series about it all. It is very important to me that the stories and personalities involved in creating social change are not lost or forgotten. I definitely feel like documenting the people involved in these movements is going to be a huge part of my life’s work.

What's next for you?

Right now I’m pretty focused on getting through this certificate programme and getting my foot into a door, any door, in the industry. Up until now I’ve mostly been a self-taught filmmaker. It’s been really great learning all of the little details that make video go from being good to amazing. I’m really starting to feel more like an artist in the editing room and that’s a great place to be.

Other than that, my sweetheart and I are working quite diligently on a week-long body image workshop for a conference this summer. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and it’s wonderful to be working on. We would both like to bring it to even more communities in the future. One of our other collective future hopes in life is that we can buy some land and start a fat positive camp for youth. I’m all about people accepting and loving their bodies from an early age!

What else would you like to say?

Bodies are amazing things, don’t forget to treat yours well and appreciate it every day!

Dirty Love
Erin's YouTube Channel

Embodied Revolution

29 October 2009

Report: Chubsters Gang Meeting in Hamburg

Back in March the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at the British Film Institute hosted an event called Invasion of the Chubsters. Ines Voigt and Gesine Claus from Hamburg's Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage were there. Ines had the idea of doing something similar in Germany, she emailed me and eventually we worked something out and it all pulled together.

So last week we all held a Chubster Gang Meeting in Hamburg, at a beautiful cinema called B-Movie, as part of the film festival. The event was supported and documented by Bildwechsel, an incredible feminist-queer-trans-etc archive and arts organisation. The screening sold out, some people sat in the aisles, and the atmosphere was warm and friendly and good.

We showed our miniature Chubster video, and some footage from the Fat of the Land. I talked about some film clips of Divine and Marianne Sägebrecht, and showed off a lot. There were some short films by and about fat queer themes, and time for questions and answers afterwards.

There were some subsidiary events too: Butch Husky, Weasel and I were interviewed on the red sofa at the Nachtbar, an amazing semi-squatted after-hours club and hangout that exists for the duration of the festival. It was a hoot. I got interviewed for the super-duper Hugs and Kisses magazine, here's the English version (.pdf, 56kb).

It was a big thrill to attend the festival. I dream of queer-fat culture that isn't in English. I wonder if at last I can start to look east into Europe and beyond, rather than west to the US, for rad fat community and activism. I hope so. The festival hosted some impressive work, and I feel excited by the possibilities for building links in Germany and beyond.

I want to give gigantic and grateful thanks to Ines and Gesine for welcoming me and my fellow Chubsters to Hamburg. Thanks also to the excellent Bildwechsel, Hugs and Kisses, and the Filmtage organisers for making our stay a complete delight.

19 October 2009

Revisiting What's Eating Gilbert Grape

I watched What's Eating Gilbert Grape again last night for the first time since it came out in 1993. There are spoilers here, don't read any more if that kind of thing bothers you, or go and read a synopsis if you're unfamiliar with it. Anyway, it's a film that gets name-checked because of its cast, made up of people who have gone on to conquer Hollywood, but it's extraordinary to me because of its depiction of a superfat woman in a dramatic role. This is something that never happens, and today I can imagine that same role might easily be cast to a thin actor wearing a fatsuit, for whatever stupid fatphobe war on obesity reason.

I'll get the bits I'm not so keen on out of the way first. Yes, Bonnie Grape is a downbeat character, she's dependent, a sad couch potato, tragic, and has to die, though I'm glad to see that actor Darlene Cates is still going strong at 61. The film is a right old schmaltz-fest, and the incidental music is really annoying. I won't go into the representational stuff about Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of a learning disabled person, but that's there too.

But here's what I like: Bonnie is complicated, she can be fierce, she is loving and loved, and just as flawed as any of the other characters. I like the depiction of people's reactions to Bonnie and how they affect her, not just the cruel stares, but also her family's love. I love the authenticity that Cates brings to the role. I think it's amazing that she's neither depicted as virtuous or villainous, and I love the way that her heft and bulk is shown, that seems very real and quite daring to me. The director, Lasse Hallström, picks up on her screen children's shame (and guilt about their shame) about their mother really sensitively. He's not suggesting that all families where there is a fat person experience this, it's localised to the family in the film, and well-observed, I think.

Most of all, I like to think about the Hollywood pretty people in the film, that they act together with Cates. It's appalling to think that they all went on to have amazing acting careers, and hers was more modest in comparison. Yet in this film, here they are, all together, in each others' worlds as equals. A really fat woman is shown as having space and presence in the world, she's not absent or abstract, and she's played by a real fatty. It's a great mix-up, though also a reminder of how little similar representation there is of characters like Bonnie Grape.

The war on obesity as a conflict map

I've been working on a paper about the war on obesity, using conflict analysis models to explore the war a bit, and thinking about the material reality of this metaphorical war. A little while back I wrote a piece about Foresight and their Obesity Maps, which I think are baloney (yeah, that's the official term). But clearly I am just as obsessed as they are in trying to create graphic interpretations of systems and processes.

Anyway, I wanted to share a conflict map I made and would welcome feedback and suggestions. The difference between my work and theirs is that I am able to recognise that there are critical voices in this system, and I don't base my analysis on the idea that fat people are fat because of problems with energy balance. Oh, and I haven't been funded millions of pounds of public money to produce this, which shows, of course, I did it in Word. I'm DIY all the way, baby!

The map shows people, organisations and entities that I think are central to the war on obesity. I've tried to draw the blobs in sizes relative to how I see their power. The stuff that I find myself critical of, as a fat activist, probably don't think of themselves as a unified entity, hence they are grouped within a dotted line. Other lines and arrows indicate relationships, which may or may not be mutual. Lightning bolts indicate a conflict, and these too are directional. The stuff in the bottom left-hand corner are 'shadow organisations', ie things that influence the war but are not chief antagonists. I've put media there because I think that the war on obesity is not their reason for existing, even though they enflame that war in profound ways. Also, hehehe, my word processor does not recognise Bariatric.

What have I missed? How could it be better laid-out? I tried to keep it to A4 but it's a bit of a crush and some of the edges got lost when I pdf-ed it. Any fat-friendly graphic designers in the house want to have a go at it? Tell me what you think. Also, is this an indication that I'm losing my marbles and should get out more often? Hey, don't cross the road, I'm talking to you!

The war on obesity, a conflict map by Charlotte Cooper, Oct 09 (.pdf, 40kb)

05 October 2009

Chubster stonemasonry

Yes, it is real. It was made by Thomas Appleton, and he is available for commissions. Get in touch if you'd like his details.

Creating intersectional fat activism with The Fat of the Land

The Fat of the Land: A Queer Chub Harvest Festival is an event I co-organised, which happened in London at the weekend.

The Fat of the Land is a secular queerifying of a traditional harvest festival, with food and gratitude, but we used this format to promote fat politics amongst London's queer and trans communities, and created intersections between various entities, such as DIY culture, riot grrrl, fat studies, Health At Every Size, radical gardeners, slow food proponents, punk, craftivism, and more. We had minimal resources to pull it together, but plenty of enthusiasm and help from people. Around 200 people came to the event. It was a massive success.

You can find out more about The Fat of the Land, and the build-up to it, over on the dedicated blog, http://queerchub.blogspot.com (and you'll understand why it has been somewhat quiet over here recently).

My co-organisers and I come from different disciplines and communities, although there is a lot of overlap between us. We all had different ideas concerning what the Fat of the Land was about. This is usually the kind of thing that causes a lot of friction, and I have seen identity politics destroy organisations, time and time again. But instead of trying to force it into one kind of shape, that suited only a limited number of people, we had the luxury of being able to go with what we wanted (for me, it was about building community, sparking ideas, expressing queer-fat culture, and having some fun). This meant that the event was multi-dimensional and expansive, and it showed.

I think that it is good to mix things up, it makes things strong. There were people at the Fat of the Land who I doubt would ever show their faces at more orthodox gatherings of rad fatties. This is partly because they would not be welcomed, they might have the 'wrong' gender, or body size, or history, for example; but also because they might feel that such spaces are irrelevant to them. But the Fat of the Land had many intersecting points and ended up being a dynamic place where there could be a positive meeting of cultures and viewpoints. It ended up being bigger than any one group could have created by themselves. I was delighted to see, for example, a venerable activist from one sphere engaged in a long conversation with an up and coming fat activist; such a meeting would be unlikely elsewhere, and is sure to have sparked new ideas and relationships. It was like the Studio 54 of fat liberation!

These are some of the reasons why I do not support closed spaces, or segregated space. I think that mixing things up can be risky, but that with mutual respect it can be amazingly powerful. I believe that many people must have an investment in fat stuff for extensive positive social change to occur, and that making things welcoming and fun is part of the work of generating people's interest in the issues.

I accept that there are fears of 'the message' being watered down or lost by people who 'don't get it', but I think these fears are overstated. Being fat itself tells you nothing about how a person is, attitude is what counts. Nobody can own or control what people think about fat or any of its intersections, we should accept that people are going to come to this stuff with their own histories and ideas, which we might think about working with, rather than fighting against. I think that there is room in the movement for everyone, we can come to it with our quirks and idiosyncrasies, and that we don't all have to be reading from the same page.