27 September 2010

Charlotte Cooper and Judy Freespirit in conversation, June 2010

Charlotte Cooper and Judy Freespirit, June 2010,
in the art room at the Jewish Home for the
Aged, San Francisco,
photographed by Esther Rothblum
Three months before Judy Freespirit died, Esther Rothblum took me to visit and interview her at the Jewish Home for the Aged in San Francisco, where Judy had lived for the past three years. Judy was in poor health but none of us knew how little time she had left.

I have a lot to say about this meeting but I'll save it for a separate essay.

I'm posting the raw interview transcript here as a resource for people to cite and analyse. I consider Judy to be an important figure in the history of critical understandings of fat and it is my hope that her work becomes more central to the discourse. I've edited the transcript slightly to remove some references to other people.

I offer my deepest gratitude to Judy and Esther.

Please visit Remembering Judy Freespirit for more information.

Judy Freespirit Interview, 7 June 2010

Charlotte: Ok, so we're going, and I can hear me, so that means I can probably hear you. I'm just going to prop that right there.

So I guess, I told you a bit about how I became radicalised around fat, and the stuff that I was reading, and I was wondering how you got the idea that fat could be a political thing.

Judy: I think the first real bang in my head that said: "Oh my god! This is more than you've been thinking" was, I was a student at Cal State LA and there was going to be some kind of a big demonstration there because the administration was allowing prejudice against students of colour in the area of housing. And so I was a member of CORE, you know CORE?

Charlotte: Mm-hmm.

Judy: I don't know which organisations were...

Charlotte: CORE is a pretty famous organisation, so, yeah, yeah.

Judy: Ok. So I was a member of CORE before they threw all the white folks out and we decided to demonstrate against the administration and force them to start not allowing people to discriminate in student housing. So I was picketing the administration, and there were maybe ten of us picketing, and there would always be twenty or thirty people making fun of us and laughing and saying things, and it was on a hill and further up the hill there were men with hats, you know, obviously some kind of government agents, taking notes and...

Charlotte: Oh.

Judy: It was during, you know, the J. Edgar Hoover period. So that was my first real activism. And the funny thing that hit me was the things that people were shouting had to do with my being fat. 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.

Charlotte: Right, so you were in this very politicised situation.

Judy: 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 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." So that's sort of my first rememberence.

Charlotte: Wow. That's an amazing moment, a lightbulb moment.

Judy: Yeah, a lightbulb moment.

21 September 2010

Research: language and the war on obesity

I'm glad that I'm living in a time and a place where I get to witness at close range the dying gasps of fat hatred through the desperate medium of scientific obesity research. The days are numbered for the people who produce this work because a bunch of us are on to them and we're not going to shut up about what we've found, for example:
  • That their research gets funded by companies that benefit from fat hatred
  • That they have non-existent or crapulous methodology
  • That their interpretation of results flies in the face of all that is scientifically reasonable
  • That their work is founded in prejudice and misinformation
  • That despite access to resources, they exclude critical perspectives
  • The complete absence of fat stakeholders within work which is supposed to be about us, which portrays fat people, or rather "the obese," as some kind of Othered subhuman lump of helplessness.
Et cetera.

Alternative ways of understanding fat are starting to emerge from Fat Studies and through activism and models such as Health At Every Size. These take a more sophisticated view of fat, and strive to recognise the humanity and agency of fat people.

So here I am, sitting in my deckchair in the garden of Fat Studies, flowers blooming, birdies tweeting, golden sunlight, and I'm watching obesity science implode over the other side of the fence where the ground is barren and the stinking dust chokes you. I'm thinking: "Burn, baby, burn."

Today's piece of obesity science schadenfreude, evidence of a dying empire, comes courtesy of the University of California, San Diego (also home to a group of amazing Fat Studies scholars, as it happens). Lead researcher Jeffrey Schwimmer's study confirms the concept 'infectobesity' which refers to a correlation between exposure to viruses or bacteria and being fat.

Whether or not Schwimmer's research offers any useful facts is not my interest here. What concerns me is that this study makes the concept of infectobesity concrete and real to people without any critical understanding of its social impact, or care that such a perspective is absent.

The same happened with Foresight's popularising of the concept obesogenic, meaning how environments supposedly cause people to become fat. Not long after that piece of work was published – and boy, was it ever a piece of work – you couldn't turn a page of The Guardian without coming across some posh twit using it to make themselves look knowledgeable, concerned and important.

The effect of obesogenic was that it legitimised judgmental middle class intrusion into working class people's lives in the UK through stereotyping of poor people's perceived lack of health knowledge, proposals for Healthy Towns and food labelling and taxation systems, as well as the increased surveillance over children through chubby fatphobe Jamie Oliver's school dinners campaign and the whole Change4Life fiasco. Good work!

Meanwhile, terms like obesogenic and infectobesity are problematic because they assume that fat is pathology rather than a part of the fabric of humanity (we think that biodiversity is a good thing, why doesn't this extend to people where fat is concerned?) and automatically conflate fatness with ill-health rather than address the structures which influence health, eg poverty, discrimination, stress. They seek reasons for explaining fatness so that it can ultimately be obliterated, a rationale that mirrors eugenicist social engineering, only this lot want to do it for profit. Infectobesity is worrying, too, because a viral explanation of fat is likely to lead to increased discrimination against and social exclusion of fat people.

Given the ferocity of these ideological attacks on fat people like you and I, it seems odd that one might feel pity for the world that this research represents. It's a strange reversal of the pity directed at fat folk through obesity science. But obesogenic and infectobesity represent ever more desperate attempts to explain fatness using the ever-dwindling touchstones of energy-balance and pathology. These concepts are being produced in the shadow of new scholarship that blows this narrow thinking out of the water and threatens the profitability of the businesses which fund such rubbish. These are the final gasps of a dying entity.

I thought I'd end this post with some ideas for alternative concepts upon which obesity scientists could base some studies. Feel free to suggest your own.

Fleabesity The belief that fatness is caused by bites from infected fleas.

Obesogreed A term which refers to the insatiable desire to cash-in on fat hatred through spurious scientific claims. Describes weight loss companies that fund research producing and endorsing obesity charities.

Meteobesity The belief that fatness is caused by changes in the weather, or meteors.

Obesignore The act of paying no attention to one's own research findings and instead reiterating the worthlessness of fat and the value of weight loss at any cost.

UFObesity The belief that fatness is caused by aliens.

Uselessblobesity The act of making fat people absent, abject and anonymous within obesity research.

Disobedieisty The belief that fatness is caused by bad thoughts.

Dinobesosaur The term by which old skool obesity scientists should now be understood.

08 September 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: charities have vested interests in WLS

I tend to tune out weight loss news stories, I figure that if you’ve seen one then you’ve seen ‘em all. But this juicy little number caught my eye this morning.

More obesity surgery 'could save millions of pounds'

Those rogues at the National Obesity Forum are behind this idiotic piece of research. I hesitate even to call it research because it’s of no value whatsoever and serves only to bolster this particular organisation’s eugenicist campaign of measuring and containing/annihilating fat people’s dangerous bodies. The tables look nicely formatted on the BBC website, I’ll give them that, but the numbers are meaningless without context or an explanation of the methodology.

This story is another salvo in favour of the argument that fat people are worthless lumps who are a terrible financial burden on society. Our poor health costs the economy countless millions. Lucky, then, that surgery is a magical fix, transforming these abstracted blobs of lard (ie you and I) into fully functioning members of society. What the research fails to take into account is the cost to the NHS of follow-up care for people whose health has been ruined by surgery, or of reduced life-expectancy relating to weight loss surgery. I wonder what kind of a dent that might make on this ridiculous cost-benefit analysis. Bodies here are machines to be tinkered with, and society is also a machine, where every tiny cog must play its part. Does this sound as bit fascist to you as it does to me?

At least the BBC mentioned that the research was funded by NOF chums, "two firms involved in making equipment used in obesity surgery". So they’d have no vested interest in increasing the numbers of people being recommended for weight loss surgery then, oh no. The NOF is for “Healthcare professionals who take an interest in the treatment and management of obesity” – one presumes so that they can cash in on it. Honestly, this whole report is so worthless that it beggars belief why it’s been published (I'm into the fat thermographs used to illustrate the piece though, ooh, hot hands, cold arse).

I would like to be part of a group that spits out press releases and refashions obesity research. If fatphobe numbskulls at the NOF can have this level of success in getting their hateful propaganda out in the world, it’s surely no stretch to start getting messages of a different kind out there. Anyone wanna start an obesity charity with me? I’ve got a mate who can design us some official-looking letterheads.