26 May 2011

What would it be like to wake up thin?

One of the questions that I was asked last week at King's College London was about how I might handle waking up thin one day (my answer: "That's never going to happen").

I gave a quick answer but this question deserves deeper thought because I think it is a product of various ideas about fatness, including:
  • Fat people would rather be thin because obviously it's better to be thin
  • There is nothing of value in being fat
  • Bodies are choices therefore transformation is desirable and possible
  • The fantasy of transformation from an unbearable present to a beautiful future is preferable to the struggle to make the present liveable now
  • Disbelief that embodied self-acceptance is possible
These ideas bring with them a lot of heartache, frustration, stigma, discrimination and hatred. They support the concept that Hannele Harjunen writes about so well, of fat liminality, the idea that fat people's lives are in this holding space, a purgatory, until they become thinner/normative and can properly enter into human life.

It won't come as a surprise, but I don't subscribe to these ideas in relation to my own body. However, I do fantasise a lot about things. Often these are impossible supernatural things, like waking up and all the dead people I love are alive again; or about a more prosaic sadness, like waking up to find that I am adored and worshipped by someone who plainly doesn't adore or worship me in real life. Sometimes I dream about things that appear impossible but become more feasible when I pick them apart; waking up with unimaginable wealth is actually the desire to be able to do what I want with my life, to be able to help other people whenever I like, and not having to worry about paying for something, rather than sitting on a yacht with a bunch of supermodels. I think dreaming and imagining are crucial for anyone with an interest in social change; fantasy and desire, an imagining of something different, they are the first unformed, free-flowing steps to taking action.

Occasionally I harbour fantasies of having a different kind of body. Having a tail, a penis, the ability to project my thoughts out of my eyeballs like a film, or type anything just by tapping my fingers on a surface, being able to fly, to breathe underwater, to teleport, to grow or miniaturise myself, this is what I think about. I also wonder what it might feel like to have different impairments like some of the people I know. The fantasy of waking up thin is not really there, it's too boring, I just don't value slenderness in that way.

When I return to the original question I think I am being asked about the circumstances under which I would want to be thin. It boils down to this: it would be interesting to take advantage of the capital and privilege that comes with being normatively embodied for a couple of days, though I think this would enrage me to a level where I would struggle to function. I think Linda Bacon's 2009 NAAFA keynote, Reflections on Fat Acceptance: Lessons Learned from Privilege (.pdf, 128kb) is really central to the reasons why fat people might fantasise about becoming thin, it's about acessing power and privilege. This explains why people would risk the drastic and uncertain steps to realise normatively thin embodiment, and why this is problematic for anyone who cares about embodied diversity and the unequal distribution of power.

The question about waking up thin comes from a series of common values and beliefs that have become very alien to me and it's fun to take them apart and answer the question from my current standpoint. I'm intrigued, for example, by the way that very thin people can scooch up into tiny spaces, so I'd like to try that for, I dunno, 20 minutes or so before I returned home to my own body. It's a funny reversal of the fantasy, being thin is the temporary state in my mind's eye because when I think about it, who would I be without my body and my own history of fat embodiment? There's no way I would ever want to deny that precious stuff.

19 May 2011

Representing fat and the future

Look at this amazing picture!


It's from the cover of the May 2011 issue of Museums Journal, the magazine of the Museums Association. It's there to illustrate an article about how science museums should get more hip and goes to show that a picture of a fat person or object perks up any old thing.

It turns out that the object is a sculpture that was exhibited in the Museum for the History of Science's Steampunk exhibition. I'm not much of a Steampunk aficionado so I haven't dug very deeply into the site and haven't been able to find much information about it other than that its title is Cosmonaute and it was made by Stéphane Halleux. There are more pictures on Stéphane's site.

The magazine image is accompanied by the headline 'Brave New World,' which I like because it subverts the notion that obesity heralds the end of the world. I've documented previous artistic explorations of fat that I think have failed dismally, but this object is different. I love it, from its tiny and cute three-digit hands to its truncated feet and blank/wonderous expression. Its apparent inflatedness reminds me of the lovely Horniman Walrus, which is no bad thing. I like the way it appears to hover lightly, as though gravity is no longer relevant.

The sculpture's shape recalls friends and acquaintances who look a bit like this. It makes me think that fat activists should have tool belts, gauges, dials and protective headgear as we navigate and explore the outer reaches of culture and embodiment.

16 May 2011

How the Left failed fat

About a week ago my friend sent me a link to an article by Jennie Bristow that was published in Living Marxism when my book came out in 1998, you can read it below. My publisher at the time sent me a press packet of all the coverage my book generated, but this article wasn't in it so I never saw it. I'm glad that I didn't read it back then, the work had been a monumental struggle for me at a time when I was living a somewhat marginal life, and I would have been devastated.

I'm in a better position to talk about this stuff 13 years on. Bristow's vicious piece is callous in its response to Christina Corrigan's death, and disablist and racist to boot. Without ever having met me, she paints me as a miserable, whining wannabe victim intent on playing oppression olympics, when actually my book sets out the many ways in which fat activists resist and transform hatred, and why we do it. Bristow presents fat activism as dogmatic and American, which it certainly can be, but there's more to the picture than that. She posits the classic argument that fat is trivial compared to 'real' oppression, not least because fat is a choice. Weirdly, she demolishes me but agrees that fat hatred is real and has negative effects on people's lives – er, isn't that what I was saying? She also sets up a creepy and false bad fatty/good fatty division between me and the lovely Janice Bhend, who published my work in her magazine in the 90s. What would Bristow have made of the passages that my publisher refused to publish? The sections about fat and trans people, sex-positive feminism, SM? I imagine she would have blown a gasket. And what about my publisher's feminist censorship of those ideas? We'll never know what she would have made of that, if only she'd done her journalistic homework and spoken to me first. The best bit is where Bristow refers to "The Charlotte Coopers of this world," heheheh, yes, there are legions of us! All like me!

Bristow's article was not the first time that Living Marxism dismissed fat activism, in 1994 Ann Bradley went to town on Mary Evans Young's project of getting an anti-diet Early Day Motion read and supported in Parliament. I won't dwell on those pieces, or my book, both came out years ago and are done and done. Contexts have changed and I feel confident that Fat & Proud was a good piece of work because of the positive response I've had to it over the years.

What I do want to say is that both Bradley and Bristow's articles capture the British Left's failure to get on board with embodied liberation, including fat. This is also mirrored in some kinds of feminism (and it hasn't escaped me that both of these Living Marxism articles were authored by women). The legacy of the belittling of fat activism, and the feminist pathologising of fat within eating disorder paradigms is that the Left has a particularly muddled and weak relationship to this kind of political activity today. I see this as a wasted opportunity, a terrible shame. If the unions had supported Jane Meacham when she was sacked for being too fat in the late 1980s, we might very well have employment protection today. And how come it's left to the bloody Daily Mail to highlight dodgy goings on in the weight industry – notably a number of deaths of women who happened to be on the Lighterlife diet – whilst The Guardian continues to bleat on about the obesity epidemic long after anyone is interested?

Maybe Bristow has the answers. I wrote to her last week to see if she would like to re-engage with some of the things she said about my work in the light of how the world has since changed. As yet she hasn't responded.

Bradley, A. (1994). Fat's not a feminist issue. Living Marxism, 68, p.11

Bristow, J. (1998). The 'fat rights' lobby is out to lunch. Living Marxism, 109, p.30

PS. And I'm still pissed off that when Michael Moore solicited his TV audience for ideas, he never took up my suggestion that diet industries would be a good target for Crackers the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken! What, hold a grudge? Me?

And while I'm at it, have a look at Depicting fat and class too.

11 May 2011

Revisiting BBC Open Space: Fat Women Here To Stay

Although my awakening as a fat activist was spread out over a long period, and although I still feel that I am undergoing a continuous kind of awakening around it, I can pinpoint 1989 as the year when I started to wake up.

I was 20, at Uni in Aberystwyth, my mum and my brother had recently died and I was frozen with grief, and I had a horrible relationship with a guy who wanted me to lose weight. During this dismal time I got a copy of Shelley Bovey's Being Fat Is Not A Sin, I may well have come across Shadow On A Tightrope, I heard about the Fat Women's Conference and the group that organised it in London and saw them talk about it on Terry Wogan's chat show. It's possible I read the articles that Spare Rib published about this new British fat activism, and I watched the Open Space documentary Fat Women Here To Stay on BBC2.

Today, 22 years later, I watched that documentary again. There's a viewing copy at the British Film Institute so I went and paid the fee, a massive £3.60 including VAT, and a friendly technician set it up for me at a viewing station.

I don't know much about the BBC's Community Programming Unit or Open Space, although I appeared in a later Open Space documentary made by Mary Evans Young for her Dietbreakers project in the early 1990s. I think the idea was that there were a number of slots available for people in the community to make their own programmes and maintain editorial control. The programmes were then broadcast during prime time on BBC2.

Watching Fat Women Here To Stay this morning, I was struck by how much and how little had changed in two decades. I think fat activism is slightly less obscure than it was, and parts of the discourse presented by the documentary have muddled their way into more mainstream spaces. Fat people are a lot more visible too, not just as subjects of a moral panic, but also as subjects for a television industry that needs to churn out a mass of sensationalist and cheap programming. But Fat Women Here To Stay is a very different entity than, say, a fat-related shockumentary in 2011. Mainstream, prime-time programmes where fat activists, or any 'political extremists', have editorial control don't exist.

Back to the prog. It covers the ground you'd expect: reclaiming language, discrimination, clothes, health, relationships, media representations, that kind of thing. It upholds healthism in a way that would be seen as problematic today, and its critique of fashion and advertising is flimsy. It's very earnest and somewhat naive, which makes it unintentionally funny at times, though never in a mean way. The fatshion is striking, voluminous printed tops and dangly earrings are the look for fat feminism in 1989.

My life has changed beyond anything I could have imagined for myself back then and the way I watched Fat Women Here To Stay today is very different to the way I originally viewed it. It's a credit to the programme that it can keep someone's interest beyond a Fat 101 stage. Here's what I really liked:

The presence of working class, angry, dykey feminists. Although the section on Jane Meacham's fatphobic sacking was heart-breaking, her defiance, and the support of her defiant family, is and was really inspiring, so many people would be crushed by the treatment she had to face. Mandy Mudd told it like it is, and I noticed that the women were very careful with pronouns when talking about partners and relationships!

The sequence in which the London Fat Women's Group calls up the long defunct City Limits magazine and berates them for publishing fatphobic lonely hearts adverts. The Advertising Manager on the other end of the line immediately derails the conversation by alluding that the group are sell-outs for working with the BBC, to which Heather Smith replies: "There's never been a programme on British TV which has been positive about fat people, and we just have to use it as any other oppressed group would use the media, even though as a whole it may produce some oppressive programmes." God, she is on it! There's another great sequence in which, along with Barbara Shores, she tells a representative from Jenny Craig that she is a tool of The Man and takes no prisoners.

The clips of mainstream comedy shows Allo Allo and Russ Abbott denigrating fat women are fascinating(ly awful) to see. Russ Abbott interests me because his show was a platform for fat comedian Bella Emburg, so he supported a fat woman's career whilst defaming fat women in general. I don't watch much mainstream TV comedy so couldn't tell you whether fat jokes have changed since then or disappeared, maybe they've become more subtle, or maybe the way fat women are depicted has shifted more towards disgust and pity.

On the other hand, the sequence where three members of the London Fat Women's Group enthusing about Baghdad Café having just been to see it at the Curzon Soho is delightful. This is a film I love too. If I have one big criticism of the programme it is that it could do less hand-wringing and more badassery to show how life-affirming and liberating fat activism can be, especially in terms of making and consuming our own cultural production. I have been criticised by other fat activists, including my early days heroine Shelley Bovey who has since somewhat disowned the movement, for paying insufficient attention to the dreadfulness of fat experience. It can be dreadful, this is true, but I cannot live a life that is solely focussed on oppression without also taking into consideration its resistance and the necessary pleasures of making our own liveable lives through creativity and community. This is an important means if survival, a way people can thrive. In this way I think the artist Rita Keegan's presence in the programme is crucial and I wish she'd been in it more.

Anyway, at least I got to enjoy Angela English's poetry and a group of women singing a very sweet fat liberation song at the end of the programme. It's sung to the tune of Que Sera and has the lines:

Now I know women can be strong
And we must struggle to set ourselves free
Fat women healthy, happy and proud
Fighting for liberty

Que sera sera
We know that our dreams can be
The future is ours you see
We can make things change

I have some ideas why the London Fat Women's Group and the second Fat Women's Group ended, which makes watching Fat Women Here To Stay a bittersweet experience. I would really love to meet the women who made this programme, especially Heather Smith, so far our paths have never really crossed. I'm so glad this programme was made, it’s still a remarkable piece of work, and an important part of my own radicalisation.

09 May 2011

I had a watsu session and it felt great

The Hot Bath, where I had my treatment
I had one of the most extraordinary experiences of fat embodiment in my life on Saturday afternoon.

I went to Thermae Bath. This is the thermal baths complex in Bath, in Somerset. I'll try and explain this without being too confusing. Bath is a town. There are remains of Roman baths there, you can visit them to look but you cannot bathe in them. For a long time you could bathe in other baths in Bath, but then they closed. A new bathing complex was opened a few years ago. This complex comprises an inside pool, an outside rooftop pool, some steam rooms, and a hot bath where treatments are given. There is a separate building with a smaller bath. The baths are the only place in the UK where you can bathe in water heated by geothermal activity. Bath is also Britain's most well-known spa town, but that's another story.

(Quick and grumpy aside: If you are fat, the robes at Thermae Bath will not fit you, but the receptionist will insist "You'll be okay" without listening to you when you ask what size they come in. Although people of many sizes come and bathe at the baths, the robes only come in one standard size that does not cover someone of my size. This is extremely annoying, especially given that the complex has otherwise really good access for disabled people. I don’t know why they don't have some larger robes available. I have been to bath houses in Japan, a country where people tend to be much smaller than me, and I have been adequately clothed there, but not at Bath. Tip for fat people: bring your own.)

Thermae Bath at peak visiting time is not relaxing in the way that the brochure pictures promise. It is heaving with people who do not know about spa etiquette. So there is a lot of loud chatter, dashing around, and people seem unable to switch off and just experience the heat, the water, the ambiance. My partner and I bobbed around in the warm water with everyone else. It was not a holy experience, but it was fun and relaxing in its own way.

The baths are a great place to witness yourself amongst a spectrum of bodies, to see the myth of bodily normativity at first hand, and to treat your own body with gentle kindness. Bobbing, floating, sweating, napping, all feel good. Going to the baths is not the only way in which I have learned to feel okay in my own skin, but it's part of the story. I would love to see a fat activist reclamation of David Walliams and Matt Lucas' hate-filled Little Britain stereotype Bubbles DeVere. I resent that mean appropriation of my fat, naked, spa-loving self!

The hot bath from outside
I also find the idea of spa treatments interesting because they inhabit a quasi-medical, or para-medical space. Often practitioners will have a professional qualification and will wear a uniform. Sometimes the division between acting medical and being medical is blurred, especially with treatments like colonic irrigation and botox, and spa treatments can look very much like possibly-discredited treatments of yesteryear, electrified and radon baths spring to mind here. Negotiating medicalised space when you're fat is generally a complex and fraught experience, and sometimes the space of the para-medical spa treatment is anxiety-provoking in similar ways. Will the gown fit? Will the equipment fit? How will my body be evaluated? But spa-space can also be a much more free space because the authority of the practitioner is not as powerful as a common or garden health professional, here there is room for negotiation, their status can be more easily questioned, and this can embolden one to refute passivity more easily when dealing with real doctors and medics. Anyway, I think messing around with your body is a way of claiming your body.

So I had a treatment whilst I was at Thermae Bath. I'm almost embarrassed to say it because the name of the treatment – Watsu – sounds like so much orientalist mumbo-jumbo. I've since found out that it's a portmanteau of water and Shiatsu, a type of massage that emphasises pressure points. The evidence that Shiatsu is effective treatment for disease is unconvincing, but it feels really good. Watsu was invented by who else but a California hippy called Harold Dull in 1980, fact fans. Few people offer it in the UK because there aren't many pools appropriate for it. It can be very pricey and my session was no different, though I didn’t pay for it, it was a belated xmas present. I chose to have a Watsu session not because I am diseased, but because I wanted to be swished around in the water for an hour and can just about handle its inherent bourgie woo. I knew that Watsu would feel nice and relaxing but I wasn't expecting the experience to be as intense and strange as it was.

My session took place in the Hot Bath, a stunning pool at the centre of the building. I've included pictures of it here. When I looked up I could see clouds and sky through the glass roof. There was some music playing in the distance, and gurgles and pops made by the water, but the setting was incredibly serene, almost like a virtual reality environment.

My therapist was called C. It was just us in the pool. She told me what she was going to do and tied some floats to my legs. Two didn’t fit but there was no fuss and I am plenty buoyant anyway.

We did some breathing together, our bodies rose and fell in the water as our lungs filled and emptied with air. C invited me to lean back into her arms when I was ready. She took my head and swished me around, pulling and turning me. I looked up at the sky and then closed my eyes for the rest of the session.

What I saw when I looked up
I felt like a tadpole, something evolving from the primordial soup. Sometimes I was bobbed up and down and tilted out of the water. I was in constant motion, feeling the water swoosh past my limbs. I concentrated on my breathing and letting go of tension in my body, and of the sensation of the water around me, and of C's hands. She advised me earlier to be like a piece of seaweed, so I tried to do that. As the session went on, C incorporated stretches that would be impossible for me to do on land. She used her hands and feet, her whole body. I don't know how she did it, perhaps she grew some extra limbs. It felt amazing. At one point she stuck my head in a floating bonnet type thing (I still had my eyes closed so have no idea what this looked like) and pressed pressure points in my feet, hands and shoulders. At the end of the session she placed me upright against a wall in the pool and massaged my face. She gave me some time to come round. I said goodbye to the pool and stepped into a fluffy towel and had a rest on a recliner, under a blanket.

The whole session felt extremely intimate and special. I felt changed by it. I don't know if this was because I had been able to relax and trust that I would be okay, I think it may have something to do with surrendering to vulnerability in the water and allowing myself to be cared for. I have various histories of abuse to my name, which I have been thinking about a lot lately, and it felt mind-blowing to be held physically in this way. There is something about the way this takes place in warm water, too, which feels very elemental, and is somewhere I feel at home.

I was aware of how close our bodies were during the treatment and this could be disturbing if you didn't trust the person doing it. C's head was close to mine, I was in her arms almost all of the time, and my hand brushed past her breast and her armpit at various stages. There was intense eye contact. I was aware that my magical moment was work to her, and I thought about the treatment as being on a spectrum of embodied work that includes other kinds of massage and sex work. I felt like a John of sorts, but perhaps this is the only way I can rationalise this kind of gendered, paid-for, embodied experience.

I felt very moved that C was able to handle me. There's something really amazing when young and pretties (my girlfriend's term for normatively embodied people, perhaps those who have never encountered non-normative embodiment, or fear or deride it) are able to treat people with bodies like mine with respect. Being old, unruly, hairy-legged, ungroomed, fat, scarred, wobbly, messy, and all the rest of it does not always send people running for the hills – who knew? It is absolutely brilliant when people who may not be in the firing line themselves step up and show that they have done their work. C looked after me and modelled ways in which I might care for myself. Thank you!

I thought of the journey I've taken with my body, how many fat people, people, would not be able to do what I did, and not just because of financial or other practical access reasons either. It was almost too enormous to think about, and I still feel that I could become a big blubbering mess if I thought about it deeply, so maybe I'll come back to that in a while, or take my time in picking it apart.

How did this all end? I walked back to the pool to see Kay, grinning, full of wonder, and with a profound sense that I'm alright, really.

Conference Report: ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar - 4

ESRC Seminar Series
Fat Studies and Health At Every Size: Bigness Beyond Obesity


Seminar Four: Researching Fat Studies and HAES: working with/as fat bodies
5-6 May 2011
Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, UK


I spent a couple of days last week at the final ESRC (The Economic and Social Research Council) Fat Studies and Health At Every Size (HAES) gathering, which took place in Bath. There have been four seminars in all, stretching over about 18 months. These meetings have operated like mini conferences, and a warm and supportive community has grown up around them.

As with previous seminars, it's unfeasible to report on everything that happened, there is simply too much, so I'll just pick out a couple of the main themes.

Many of the speakers talked about autoethnography and reflexive research. Such methodologies contrast strongly with dominant research paradigms in 'obesity'. Where the latter draws upon notions of universal scientific truth and objectivity, the former disrupts such ideas by bringing the researchers themselves to the centre, by offering context, emotion, ambiguity and paradox. I particularly enjoyed Karen Throsby's presentation about her experiences researching cross-Channel swimming, which raised questions about researcher roles. Jacqui Gingras, Rachel Colls and Bethan Evans also talked about roles and ethics concerning research with and on fat people.

It is hard to imagine similar conversations happening at, say, amongst stakeholders at an obesity conference where fat people are made absent, abject, and anonymous, and where fat is automatically framed as pathology in need of professional intervention. What is remarkable about these conversations is that they took place at an interdisciplinary level and were points of contact across considerable academic difference, where tensions were able to be contained and addressed to some extent. Even better, these seminars have been open to non-academics, you know, normal people, and although some academic jargon was unavoidable, discussions emerged between people with very different experiences of and approaches to fat. Best of all, people of all sizes instigate the conversations. More mainstream obesity stakeholders would do well to stop what they're doing and listen to this dialogue.

Another seminar strand was devoted to alternative ways of presenting and conceptualising research and fat. Emma Rich, the main organiser of this seminar, invited a number of local artists and performers to showcase their work. Although few were working principally around fat or Health At Every Size, and were concerned more generally with the body, it was clear that there are exciting possibilities for fat and HAES praxis. Perhaps Vikki Chalklin came closest to this with her performance that included material from research interviews.

For me, these seminars have been much more than a series of presentations and discussions. I have experienced them as very freeing, as places of collective intellectual and political engagement, and of a scholarship that feels full of life, community and exciting potential. In 21st century Western academia these are really precious moments! Bill Savage/Dr R. White has said that the ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size seminars have forever spoiled us, and that other academic gatherings might be good, but they would never be as welcoming and stimulating as the ESRC experience! These seminars have been places where participants can see how things might be if we could talk about fat without having always to start at a 101-level defensive justification to hostile spectators. Having the freedom to think, speak, take risks and be heard in a gentle atmosphere has been wonderful, one of the best experiences of my academic career.

It's sad that this round of seminars has ended, although there will be some post-seminar projects, which are currently being discussed, and there may well be other Fat Studies conferences and seminars in the UK, as well as online activites. Keep your fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, deep thanks to Bethan Evans, the principle investigator, who had the idea of the seminar series and who wrote the successful funding application. Thanks also to my colleagues who organised the seminars, and to everyone who participated and supported them. And thanks to Lucy Aphramor, who closed the final seminar with an impromptu rendition of a beautifully vulnerable, funny and wavery-voiced verse from a HAES song. It really was the perfect ending.

Further information about the seminars

Government Support for Fat Studies and HAES in the UK

Reporting back on the first ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

Reporting back on the second ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

Reporting back on the third ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size