25 May 2012

Fat activists I admire

I'm working hard trying to wind up my PhD. I spend most days grimacing at my computer for hours on end. There aren't many laughs round here at the moment.

A little bit of sweetness came my way last night, however. I was doing the washing-up from dinner and my girlfriend came in, she had been online and had seen a link to a new interview in which superstar of the universe Beth Ditto name-checked me as one of the fat activists she looks up to.

I get love mail from readers from time to time, it started when I published my first book in 1998 and it's never really stopped, so I know that there are people in the world who appreciate my work. I see my book in libraries, dog-eared, underlined, well-read. Because my life is not very glamorous or well-paid, and because I know and have known abuse, these little messages are a great boost. Coming from Beth, though, well, that's really excellent. I have met some of my heroes and they are generally disappointing, but Beth is in another league; she has heart, humanity and politics, she makes you want to dance, and she lights the way. To think that I do things that she respects is really exciting. Despite my current gloom and angst, I have allowed myself to crack a tiny, sneaky, proud smile.

This morning I was thinking about the people I look up to in fat activism. Fandom has little interest for me because it is dehumanising, it's kind of flat. What I seek is deep and rich mutual engagement with people's work and ideas. In this way, I think of myself as standing on the shoulders of giants, and I hope that people will use my shoulders too (though credit me if you use my work please!), and that in time there will be towers of us, interlinked. In 21st century Western culture there's a faith in this figure of the lone leader but in fat activism I think this is a myth and I would advise scepticism of anyone who claims to have invented this stuff, or is looking to be the spokesperson for the movement, because there are so many fantastic activists who came before the current generation and I want to see them name-checked too! More than scepticism, I would advise people to visit an archive, ask around, and bone up on fat activist histories. My Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline project can help with this.

So I thought I'd name some names. There are many people in fat activism that I respect, but these people are the bomb:

Llewellyn Louderback left fat activism almost as soon as he started it, but not without publishing an article and a book that had a big influence on the movement. Over 40 years later, Fat Power is still amazingly relevant. He had a vision and the means to realise it; we should all be so lucky.

The fat feminists. These women, often lesbians, developed a political analysis of fat that included intersectionality, community and culture. Their feminism enabled fat women to locate the sources of oppression and liberation in everyday moments. Their work is often painfully obscure, but they are heroes in my world, the muthas of the movement, I am indebted to them beyond belief for their work, which has enabled me and many others to thrive. Sara Golda Bracha Fishman, also known as Vivian Mayer and Aldebaran, Judy Freespirit and Lynn McAfee are the key people who come to mind. They developed The Fat Underground into an organisation that defined fat activism, and still does to a great extent. Judy and Lynn went on to develop other significant fat activist projects, Sara helped develop fat activism on the East Coast of the USA, and produced this excellent article: Life In The Fat Underground. Elana Dykewomon and Judith Stein were also associated with these women. Elana published the most startling essays and poems documenting early fat feminism; Judith was an important mover and shaker in Boston, pioneering women's health, fat activism, and Jewish lesbian feminist politics.

Heather Smith used fat feminism from the US to develop a fat feminist community in the UK in the late 1980s. Other women were involved with the London Fat Women's Group, but it is Heather's articles and appearances in the British media at that time that turned me onto fat activism. One day I hope we can sit down together over a coffee.

And then there are the queers! Kathleen LeBesco's work championing the queerness of fat bodies and fat activism is visionary. Allyson Mitchell's activism and art blows my mind, the same goes for Scottee's use of fat in performance, and Substantia's abundance of fat photoactivism. The NOLOSE Board have navigated tricky waters around race and gender with imagination and integrity. There's FaT GiRL too.

I have friends and loves whose fat activism moves me very much: hello Amanda, Devra, Kay, and Simon. There are people, too, that I will never know, but whose images spur me onwards: Divine, Fran Fullenwider, Judith Clarke's photograph of Banshee that I found in the GLBT Historical Society archive in San Francisco.

I know there are many names I have missed out, the more I think of people, the more names and faces pop up. But this is where I will leave it for now. Perhaps you might like to share your own giants, perhaps here in comments, or in posts of your own.

11 May 2012

Conference Report: Body & Peace Workshop 2012

I got back from the Body & Peace workshop in Berlin a couple of days ago. This was a week long residential event, supported by European funding, with just under 20 participants from a handful of European countries attending. My partner Kay came too.

I was going to write something polite and anodyne about the workshop, and let it go, because I have struggled to articulate an appropriate response to it and would rather not upset anyone if I can help it. I have been ill, which makes things harder to say. But I can't ignore the feeling of being unsettled as I see links related to the workshop being shared around Facebook, because there are some things that those pictures don't show that I think need to be raised. Now that I am feeling better, I have been able to ask myself who my silence serves, and I've concluded that it's better to say these difficult things than to remain quiet.

When I heard about the workshop I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet fat activists from Europe. I am isolated from activists closest to me because I do not have many language skills. I have tended to look west to the US and Canada for activist community, but now I am interested in developing links elsewhere. I've had good experiences in Germany, Italy and Spain, interesting conversations with people who already have politics and are interested in developing their understanding of fat. I want to know more about fat activist histories beyond the US and UK, and to think about fat activism in broad ways, and to do this within a critique of imperialism. The Berlin workshop was financially supported, which meant that I would be able to get and stay there cheaply.

I took some things for granted, based on my experiences of activism: the workshop's aims and objectives would be open for discussion, differences of opinion would be welcomed and explored in a supportive manner, there would be opportunities to share ideas. I did not know until late into the workshop that it was funded as an adult education initiative, and was being produced as a programme by one person. There were specific learning outcomes that the funders required. What this meant was that the programme was not open for discussion, the aims and objectives were unclear, decision-making was not a collective process, and differences of opinion – many of which were likely a result of cultural differences – were regarded as awkward obstacles. This is the context in which a particular set of incidents happened that perhaps could have been addressed in other circumstances.

In addition, devising, funding, delivering and managing a week long residential programme is a lot of work for one person. I think it's too much work for one person. It involves huge pressure and stress, and makes it hard to let go and divert from the script if that script is what's keeping it all together. I don't want to devalue the intense work that the organiser contributed but I believe that this model of organising an international activist get-together was flawed from the beginning, and think that it's no surprise things went awry. The workshop delivery model at Body & Peace would have been fine for a day's training, but was too controlling for a longer workshop. I ended up feeling that I was doing wrong if there were things I did not want to attend, I was confused about the aims and objectives of the workshop, I felt resentment, and a sense that dissent, collaboration and discussion could not really happen. Being led by one person feels disempowering, you lose sight of your own power especially when, like this, it takes place in an isolated, residential, institutionalised setting. This is not what embodied peace looks like to me. Even though the participants came from different countries and did not necessarily speak a common language or have shared activist histories or politics, there was a pressure within the group to overlook differences and 'just agree' with each other.

This was the context in which the events surrounding International No Diet Day (INDD) occurred. INDD became the central event of the workshop, as well as her commitments to producing the workshop, the organiser had invited German press to a banner-making session and to the protest itself, and was therefore run ragged answering phone-calls from journalists whilst trying to hold it all together. I have written elsewhere of my lack of enthusiasm for INDD but there were no opportunities to discuss this in the light of the Body & Peace INDD protest, where compliance was assumed. Similarly, although many fat activists regard courting mainstream media representation as essential, it is not where I wish to put my activist energy. At least three of us did not want to be interviewed or photographed by the press and this made participation difficult. I got the feeling that we were regarded as 'letting the side down,' we were killjoys in the face of exciting (yet inevitably problematic) media attention.

On INDD the group went to Alexanderplatz, an important central meeting place in Berlin. We set up a table, banners, food and leaflets. There was no discussion about what we would do there, other than that it would be a picnic (though, like the original INDD 'picnic' this turned out to be little more than a media photocall). At one point the organiser told everyone to hold banners for photographs and to cheer and look happy. What people were cheering is unclear! But these are the photographs that have since been circulating and which now represent European Fat Activism. I love a good protest but this was not for me, I stood around for a bit, trying to keep out of the way until it was time to go, basically being a body and not much else.

There were some things that you don't see in the pictures. On Alexanderplatz you will find Roma women begging. Two groups of two Roma women and two girls came up to the table and took some food. Other people, all white, had taken food too without picking up leaflets or engaging with INDD. As far as I am concerned it is fine to share food with strangers, and there was a lot of food there, enough for everyone who wanted something. The young Roma girls were polite and well-behaved and, like the white children associated with participants in the completely white Body & Peace workshop, helped themselves to some sweets, including some wafer bars that a workshop participant had brought from her country. The organiser snatched the wafers out of the girls' hands and made them take a not-so-nice sweet from a bowl instead. I took the wafers and gave them to the girls. After this, the organiser unwrapped the wafer bars so that no one could take a whole bar, they could only take a small piece. Later my girlfriend Kay saw the organiser put a lid over the hands of two Roma girls who were taking some sweets from a bowl, she shooed them away and said "No, that's finished now, that's not for you, it's closed". The white people were not policed like this.

These actions were racist and I was shocked and angry not just about that but also that these women and girls, who have hard lives, had been denied pleasure where it was offered to others on a day that is presumably about food and largesse, and which is allegedly feminist. I felt that the Roma women and girl's humanity was not recognised, they could not be allowed to be INDD participants, they would certainly not be invited to appear in the newspaper photographs. One of the workshop's activities, re-writing The Fat Liberation Manifesto, involved some reflection on broader anti-oppression work, but an understanding of that was absent here. I don't know if anyone else noticed the actions against the Roma women and girls, if they did no one said anything.

We decided to leave but before we went Kay spoke about what had happened to the organiser, who did not see her racist food policing as a problem. She was worried that if beggars were allowed to take food as they pleased then more would come and the food would be gone before the media came. There hadn't been lots of beggars, just a few people. It turned out that the press didn't take any pictures of the food at all, and even if the food had gone, it would still make a good story (I'd read 'Beggars Scoff Food – Organisers Say INDD Is For Everyone' wouldn't you?). Kay offered to buy more food if it ran out but the organiser said no. She said that they could or would give out the food after the press had been, but this turned out not to be true because she brought the leftovers to the farewell party the next day where, instead of lining the tummies of sweets-loving people, Roma or otherwise, they remained uneaten.

The Berlin workshop has given me a lot to reflect on in terms of my own activism within a broader context of anti-oppression and, yet again, the efforts that some people are making to address the problem of racism in fat activism have been useful to keep in mind. No doubt there is another discussion of European attitudes to Roma beggars that I am not addressing in any detail here, I'm not sure how helpful it would be to go there, I suspect it would derail the conversation here which is more about racism and activism. What would have made the workshop stronger? Perhaps a greater commitment to working collectively and sharing work; open discussions and opportunities to speak; freedom to come and go without fear of sanction; space to consider what anti-oppression means in practise, if you're going to organise behind that; reminders that differences can be good and productive if respectful dialogue is allowed to flourish; a workshop location steeped in community rather than institution. Could this happen under the terms of the funding for this workshop? I don't know. The problems that I have described are easier to see in retrospect, and may have arisen because people didn't have the capacity to act differently. An international workshop for fat activists is a rare thing, how would anyone know better? Mistakes are a part of learning and that is what I hope for here. Although my account is hard and I am anticipating being positioned as disloyal and ungrateful, I am hoping that it will contribute to a consideration of how things could be for fat activists; perhaps less painful and more peaceful.

Grateful thanks to Kay, T├╝nya, Kori, Simon, and Charlotte for talking about this and helping me think it through. Thanks also to Emma and everyone at Rebel Bellies.