26 April 2012

How I became a fat activist

Me, 1978 or so, looking into the future.
It's been a little scrappy around here of late and I'm sorry about that. I'm preoccupied with finishing my thesis, organising the Fattylympics, and keeping going amidst some slight burn-out. It could be worse but I haven't been in the mood for writing much.

I've been working on an autoethnography for my PhD. Ethnography is a kind of qualitative research methodology that involves looking at people. With autoethnography you are also looking at yourself.  If you want to know more about autoethnography, you could read Carolyn Ellis and Jacqui Gingras on the subject.

Because I think that context matters, I think that all researchers should reflect on who they are to be doing research, even – especially – the kind of researchers who produce pages of numbers about BMI. So I've been reflecting a lot over the four years in which I've been working on my PhD, and thinking about how I came to be here. With this in mind, I thought I'd share a little about how I got into fat. It goes like this...

I have been fat all my life, meaning that I have always been fatter than most of my peers. My family is pretty fractured and it's hard to tell how fat features there. Certainly three of my immediate family have had what they would think of as 'weight problems' and have 'done something about it,' and I have distant relatives who have been fat at various stages of their lives. I think I might be the fattest but it's hard to tell amidst all this shape-changing and self-regulation. I'm certainly the most self-accepting fat person in my family.

When I was about six or seven years old, my mum decided that something needed to be done about my body. Mum was a nurse, she was working as an administrator at a clinic at that time, and very much part of a culture of medicalisation. I think her decision to monitor the food I ate may have coincided with her own body-projects, it was certainly a part of her work of trying to pass as middle class. My first diet came at a time when we were living in a colonial ex-pat community in Hong Kong that included a lot of upper-middle and upper class people. I think she felt that she had to fit in with them, and that my fat body betrayed what she felt was the shameful truth of our class.

Mum and I dieted on and off for the next few years. Sometimes we'd follow a sheet that she brought home from work but mostly it involved periodic disapproval of what I ate and voiced anxiety about the size of my body, especially when clothes didn't fit me. In spite of all this I was a very active kid, I was a synchronised swimmer, and always running around, riding my bike, doing things. This continues to this day. So whilst I had this idea that my body was a problem, I also had an image of myself as active, someone who could do things.

I had no idea about fat politics as a teenager in the early 1980s in London, though I now know that a fat feminist movement had been active for at least ten years by this stage in other parts of the world. However, I had access to some things that enabled me to develop a critical understanding of my fatness. These things weren't directly about fat but they helped pave the way later on.

The first thing was feminism. I got interested in feminism as a young girl. In my family sex was never spoken about, and I was quite anxious by the time I reached puberty, I wanted information. I didn't know about libraries so I went to bookshops and read the sex education books there. Books on feminism were stacked nearby so when I'd read all the stuff about 'a man and a lady loving each other very much and making a baby' I moved on to much more interesting books about contraception, abortion, being lesbians, self-determination, and so on. I didn't know it but I was learning about speaking up, power, and possibilities for naming and exploring my own experience.

The next thing was a sort of queer punk. Whilst I was at school I got a Saturday job that introduced me to lots of people who were really happy to be freaks and who sneered at the straight world. Queer was not a term that had much currency at the time, but this group of people, including the heterosexuals, were very queer indeed. Some were performers, most were much older than me and everyone had lived exciting lives of one kind or another. People did things, they didn't wait for someone else to do it for them. Although everybody lived on the margins in some way, people lived creatively amidst rich communities of friends. There was always something to do, bands and clubs, I started going out and I never really stopped. At the same time I was reading subcultural literature, writers like Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz, William Burroughs, and this too gave me an idea that things could be different and that being different was no bad thing at all.

I left school and did A Levels and got into student politics. At the time this took the form of anti-fascist and anti-racist organising, I remember quite a bit of feminism in the mix too. The National Union of Students was still a radical body back then. We went on demonstrations and took part in discussions and conferences. Alongside this I was travelling on and off with my oldest brother who was what would now be called a new age traveller. So I had experiences of very marginal politics too, living on the road, trying to avoid arrest, a kind of practical anarchism.

Throughout all this my fatness was still seen as a problem, not only by me but by the people around me. I longed to be thin and still made attempts to lose weight, although this never came to much. I think I knew it was bullshit but I didn't have a way of articulating it until I saw members of the London Fat Women's Group talking on Wogan, a very popular early evening television talk show. This would have been in 1989. They were organising a conference, and they also made a short documentary about fat politics that was also shown on TV. I watched it avidly.

It took a while, a couple of years, for the things that the London Fat Women's Group were saying to sink in. I think I was still recovering, not just from growing up in a context of everyday fatphobia, but also other kinds of trauma. The last straw was being dumped by a boyfriend who wanted me to be thinner. I'd really had enough. But the appearance of those British fat feminists in my life showed that there were other ways of being, and my experiences as a girl and as a teenager enabled me to adopt it eventually. Given my context, it made total sense to me that fat could be a social and political identity and that there was incredible potential for the development of fat culture, collective action and intellectual activity.

I started to look out for other things. By my late teens and early 20s I had an experiential and theoretical framework for activism that made Shadow on a Tightrope and Being Fat is Not a Sin irresistible when I first came across them around 1990 or so. I started an ill-fated fat support group, did some postgraduate work about fat activism, started to meet people who were interested in similar things and who supported my fat identity, took part in a proto-fatshion modelling competition(!), wrote a book, and spent the advance on a trip to California to meet the dykes who put FaT GiRL together and attend the Dirty Bird queercore festival. Fat politics interested me initially as a solution to the years in which my body had been a battlefield, a place of restriction, blame, anxiety, but it soon became a much bigger project, something that could play off other life experiences. Fat as feminist, punk, queer, a place to which I could bring my politics, a way of understanding my life. There was no turning back.

References

Bovey, S. (1989) Being Fat is Not a Sin, London: Pandora.

Ellis, C. (2004) The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Gingras, J. R. (2009) Longing for Recognition: The Joys, Complexities, and Contradictions of Practicing Dietetics, York: Raw Nerve.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

02 April 2012

Report: Burger Queen 2012 Final

My fat activist cake topper
Burger Queen is over for another year. It has been a totally overwhelming experience that will take me a long time to process, but here are some scraps for the meantime.

I took part in the competition this year because I loved it as a punter in 2011 and wanted to see it close-up and to immerse myself in the various fat discourses that circulate through it. I got to show off, got some applause, got to meet folks and, best of all, got to introduce the idea that a long-standing and diverse social movement of fat people exists. I didn't win the crown, and this didn't matter; although Burger Queen is framed as a competition, it is also a feast of fat embodiment and performance, it's a funny kind of competition, in a way, and it was a pleasure to see a superfat drag queen who really really wanted to win take the title. I know she will do it justice.

This is what I did for the final: for Trend I wore an outfit inspired by the Global Obesity EpidemicTM involving high-heeled trainers, hot-pants, lots of tits, arse and belly, wreaths of rainbow fat paper doll cut-outs, a light-up tiara spelling EPIDEMIC in blobby fat letters, and a multi-coloured staff topped with a model of a Big Boy. For Talent I introduced my film Lovely and Slim, showed it, and led a singalong. For Taste I made a triple-decker fat activist cake filled with cream, roasted strawberries and topped with a tiny scene of model fat activists protesting and being kettled by a fat policeman. People, I did my work. Although it was fun to take part and generally I feel very strong in myself, there were times when I felt quite vulnerable. It brought home that it’s a big deal for people who have marginalised bodies to put yourself out there and allow yourself to be judged in front of an audience. Fat or unfat, this is some people's worst nightmare, so it's pretty amazing that Burger Queen creates a place where this can happen relatively safely.

Back in work mode, Burger Queen was a rich experience for me as a sociology researcher interested in fat activism. I see the event as a great example of fat activism because it presents multiple and queer ways of experiencing fatness; although Scottee is the main performer, it is produced by a team of people some of whom are fat and some of whom are not, for a fairly diverse audience. I love how this is mixed, and how it shows that fat is a concept relevant to people of all sizes and backgrounds. It demonstrates that there isn't one single way of doing or being fat.

It also follows the relatively undocumented fat activist tradition of cultural production and community-building. Burger Queen is truly eye-popping and immersive: from the glitter curtains, the design, to the team's uniforms, from the badges to the burgers themselves, you feel as though you've entered a different and better world when you're there. I find it very freeing to see such a great array of fat bodies in performance; sometimes this is in a big in-your-face way, such as when Scottee does his show, but it is also there in the supporting cast, from Sami behind the desk, to Rebecca at the door. To talk about shared identity might be a step too far because it's a diverse group, but what Burger Queen does is make fat visible and both extraordinary and normal.

Burger Queen is fat activism because it addresses the easy as well as the difficult. It presents basic ideas such as self-love but doesn't stop there. Here are three things I have found particularly thought-provoking:

a) In the final, Scottee asked if it's possible to be a fat activist and also be engaged with controlled eating. The answer is, of course you can, but these ambiguities tend to be sidelined in fat activist rhetoric, and have historical connections to the essentialism of Second Wave feminism from which this form of fat activism has developed. It's great to question fat activist orthodoxies and to do so in a playful and thoughtful way.

b) This year has seen Burger Queen overlap with mainstream media as Scottee and Amy Lamé have made various appearances. This has resulted in a lot of fatphobic hate towards them, from the comments from this Guardian article, to hate-filled Tweets about Amy's appearance on TV. What to do with this stuff? Perform live deconstructions to your audience is what you do, which strips them of their power to hurt. Fucking amazing. Similarly, the public performance and ridicule of Rebecca's syrupy-yet-controlling Tweets from her former Weight Watchers's leader have had me howling with laughter. Sublime is the word I'm looking for.

c) At Burger Queen people play with fat identity without much previous engagement with fat activism. There have been fatsuits. In fat lib there's a general consensus that fatsuits are a bad idea and to a large extent I agree with this. Watching people who have made fortunes on the back of their ability to conform to beauty ideals fatting up in a suit to show what life is really like for fat people is nauseating. It demeans the authenticity of fat people's voices, and adds to the stereotypes about fat bodies. But I wasn't offended by the fatsuits at Burger Queen because they were performed without malice. I really love it when people do things that are rude and irreverent, when they say the unspeakable. I imagined that fatsuit performances would be an absolute no-no in some fat activist spaces, many of them actually. But one of the things I love about Burger Queen is that nobody knows the rules, nobody's stuck, there are no party lines to toe. Everyone's having a go at articulating fat, sexuality and gender in their own way. I don't agree with everything that people present at Burger Queen but it's a wild queer ride on fat, it's breaking new ground.