23 October 2012

Archiving fat lesbian feminism

I've been thinking about pictures and archives a lot lately.

After Dad died in August, I became the custodian of an archive of family photographs. I've been interested in feminist theory of family albums for a while, and I'm finding this collection of pictures to be really rich and powerful in terms of making sense of my own life.

I encountered a different kind of family archive when I was gathering material for my PhD about fat activism. I spent quite a bit of time in various archives, looking at evidence of fat feminist activism in objects and papers that had been donated by fat activists over the years. Because fat activism is relatively poorly documented, the archive is the place to be if you want to find out anything. I found handling, looking at, and reading the things I found in the archive to be very moving and exciting. Here was evidence that I'm not making this stuff up! It felt powerful to see myself within a continuum of activists.

Some archives let you take pictures of what you find, and so I have a little archive of fat feminist archival material on my computer. I thought I'd share some of it here. Because it's impossible to pick out the best stuff, I've just dipped in randomly.

Flyer or poster on yellow paper for a reading by Judith Stein and Judy Freespirit at Old Wives' Tales on 14 October 1984

This first item is a flyer for a reading by Judith Stein and Judy Freespirit. The year isn't mentioned but I did a bit of digging and I think it's 1984. I'm intrigued that these two women are billed as Two Fat Jewish Dykes. I know that Jewish dykes at this time, including Stein and Freespirit, were at the heart of fat feminism in the US. There had been a Jewish Feminist Conference in San Francisco in 1982 where Stein, and probably others, had circulated a sheet about fat oppression for discussion. Fatness and Jewishness were present amidst a broader lesbian feminism at that time, I think of this as an early attempt to articulate intersectionality in identity politics.

Other aspects of the framing of this reading seem odd to me in 2012. Dyke, although a term I use for myself because of its politicised, queer and unapologetic undertones, seems somewhat archaic. I don't hear many women, trans included, refer to themselves as dykes any more. The references to oldness, Old Wives' Tales, Bobbeh Meisehs, which is a Yiddish term also meaning old wives' tales, also strike me as odd. Queerness has become associated with youth, I think, and ageism makes it hard to imagine younger or middle-aged people playing with ideas around being old.

I like the way the flyer is copied on yellow paper, very eye-catching. I love the 'All the way from Boston and Berkeley' joke. I can imagine seeing it on a noticeboard somewhere, actually probably somewhere that doesn't exist any more, like a feminist bookshop, or a lesbian café. Maybe somewhere like Old Wives' Tales, the venue for the reading that also no longer exists. This was a bookshop on Valencia Street in San Francisco. It closed its doors for the last time in 1995, after about 20 years in business. Stein and Freespirit's reading presumably took place during its heyday.

Here are some links about the venue that offer some context for the reading:

This flyer represents to me the friendship between Stein and Freespirit, one I find inspiring. This was a political friendship, a working friendship as well as a genial and sociable relationship, perhaps a romantic one at some point too. They lived on opposite sides of the United States, they wouldn't have had the internet to help them, and they managed to maintain their friendship regardless. They produced fat feminist activist interventions together, by themselves, and with other people.

For this event they are both reading from small press publications. I'm not sure if Daddy's Girl was ever published, I think Freespirit had trouble finding a publisher and circulated some copies of it herself, but I can't be sure. I recall there is a manuscript in the GLBT Historical Society archive. Stein published Telling Bobbeh Meisehs: Notes on Identity and the Creation of Jewish Lesbian Culture, herself in Cambridge Massacusetts in 1982. This would have been before the explosion of popularity in feminist desk top publishing and zine-making in the early 1990s. It was more a scene of chapbooks and small-circulation journals.

Stein's shirt is quite something on this flyer/poster, I wish it was in full colour. Funny, too, to see her and Freespirit with dark hair when I know them as older grey-haired women. Freespirit's expression is intriguing, she looks like someone who can tell a story, which is true, she really could. When I think of her reading her account of abuse to an audience, I think of that everyday, taken-for-granted bravery of speaking that I was lucky enough to grow up with, but which nevertheless is remarkable and courageous. It makes me want to thank her, and other people like her, who continue to speak out.

The last few details of the object are about the conditions in which the reading took place. The venue is wheelchair accessible, calloo callay! Signed too! From my vantage point of London 2012, I can say that access for disabled people has dropped off the radar of radical queer life, not that venues are entirely forthcoming, and that this is depressing and needs to change. The sliding scale also rocks, though I have quite a lot of ambivalence about it being Women Only.

Remembering Judy Freespirit

09 October 2012

Fat activism, bashing back and non-violence

I went to a talk last week by a guy who edited an anthology about Bash Back and was on tour to promote his work. Bash Back is or was a movement based in the US, instigated by anti-assimilationist anarchist queers. It's not a fat thing, but like many aspects of identity politics, there are overlaps. Bash Back used a variety of tactics, including violent direct action against people and property. I understand it as a public statement by brutalised people of defiance, aggression, and refusing to take any more shit.

I did not warm to the guy who spoke. He was just getting into the stride of a self-aggrandising monologue after an hour and a half. I found him arrogant and patronising, a big baby, and wondered if he had any idea about political cultures in the UK, or thought that people here needed educating and inspiring by US activists. He made no mention of historical violent counter-cultural struggle in Europe, such as The Red Army Faction, The Angry Brigade, or radical groups like The Weather Underground or even The Symbionese Liberation Army in the US, which look like blueprints for Bash Back, and ended very badly for the protagonists. Not even a mention of the IRA.

Added to this, I was angry at his racist dismissal of non-violent resistance, his sneering mention of Ghandi, whom he equated with the passive and politically useless caricature of the candlelight vigil (my partner remarked, later on, "Well, you know, that Gandhi stuff worked for India" ie, it had the power to destroy colonialism).

As if that wasn't enough, I was also appalled by his excitement about vigilante mob responses to violence, particularly an episode where Bash Back queers torched a lesbian business because they disagreed with their politics. He said a few times that violence by queer people against assimilationist gay people is as queer as it gets. He conceptualised queer as a hierarchy of radicalism, with him and his pals at the top. But distinctions between radical and assimilationist are not always straightforward; what about Angela Mason, who was associated with The Angry Brigade, and who went on to chair the UK's primo assimilationist lesbian and gay rights organisation for many years?

I could go on complaining about him, but I won't, suffice to say that it was tragic to see baby queers and people who should know better in the audience laughing and going along with him. I felt sorry for the person who was touring with him, who was waiting for their turn to show and tell, who must have to listen to this stuff night after night.

The guy's talk was a test of endurance, but it did prompt me to think more deeply about a few of my own attitudes to political violence in relation to fat activism and my queer anarchist background. These are not always as straightforward as being 'pro' or 'anti' violence. I admire The Black Panthers, for example, and have some understanding of the context in which they bore arms, but I am flatly, completely against gun ownership and believe there is no place for them in everyday life except at the shooting range.

Here are a few more thoughts:

Fantasising about violence is understandable, it's a rare person who hasn't daydreamed about mowing down their enemies, but it is not alright if it spills into non-consensual material reality.

Violence against people is never alright, attacking property where nobody is hurt is more complicated and depends on many factors. Defacing billboards does not strike me as particularly problematic, for example, especially if you can make something more thought provoking out of them, though it's probably annoying for the person that is responsible for putting them up. But burning down someone's house because they did something heinous, as the guy claimed Bash back did? Forget it!

Adding violence to an already violent situation does not end violence, it escalates it. The people who suffer most when violence is brought into the equation are those who are already at the bottom of the pile. Has violence ever made you anything but afraid, full of rage, helpless, devastated, vengeful? I think it's a fantasy too that people ever learn a good lesson through violence, that is, the lesson that the people behind the violence want you to learn. I once went to a school where children were punished by ritualised beatings dished out by the headmaster. If you're crass enough to think this is sexy, you don't deserve to be reading my blog. What this did was create and teach a totalitarian culture of terror and snitching, but it's also one of the things that made me an anarchist, and determined to use my power to abolish systems and cultures like those at that school.

Where people are brutalised and emotions run high, violence, and symbolic violence, appear to offer a simple way out. I see this in knee-jerk responses to fat hate, for example, which construct an enemy in order to dehumanise it. But freedom sought at someone else's expense is not freedom at all, and I am really sick of this kind of aggression in the movement. The problem is that peace-building is hard work. It is a long-term commitment to mind-bending struggle and slog, it requires vision and hope. Seeing your enemy as people like you is a tough call, as is building dialogue, understanding and compromise. This is the work that comes from valuing the equality and validity of all beings, of seeking an ethical use of power. It's a while since I've thought about peace in this way, and I'm surprised that I feel so strongly about it – maybe I haven't been brutalised enough! But in reflecting on power and identity politics, I feel redetermined to invest in more imaginative, complex, and altruistic responses to violence within fat activism.

02 October 2012

Fatphobia and the outdoors

This is where we were walking
A few weeks ago I went for a walk in the Cumbrian countryside with my girlfriend. We were aiming for a place where you can swim when it's warm, a series of waterfalls and natural pools. It was too cold to get in, but I still wanted to see the water. The walk was short, less than a mile, and took us across a campsite, along a river, and up and over a rocky patch. It's very rainy in that part of the world, and there were some areas where we had to hop on rocks to get over a stream.

One stream hop was somewhat precarious, and we hooted and laughed as we scrambled over. A man and a woman were walking towards us as we teetered forwards over the water. The man wanted to be in on our fun, and he said as he walked past us, without missing a beat, and smiling: "You need more exercise."

There are a handful of reasons why this comment was a no-no, and I will explain some of them here.

Our bodies as fat women are public bodies, commentated bodies, dehumanised bodies too. We're not assumed to have the power to articulate our bodies for ourselves, but we are presumed available for others to describe, define and constrict. Without knowing a thing about us this (yes, white, older, normatively-sized, able-bodied, middle-class, appropriately-dressed, straight-looking) guy felt entitled to comment on what it is we are and need based on nothing more than momentarily seeing us teetering and giggling over a stream. This happens to fat people all the time.

If fatphobia was not part of how fat women's bodies are commented upon, "you need more exercise" would not be a tricky statement, but the man's comment came saturated with a discourse of judgment, hatred and morality. This discourse is so everyday and accepted that the guy didn't even appear to think that it was a problem, he was likely just stating a fact in a friendly way and was probably baffled by my angry response.

Whether or not we need more exercise is not his judgment to make. Maybe we could do with more, but here we were, walking to some ponds, just like him. This makes me think that we are getting enough exercise, that we are able to judge for ourselves the appropriate amount of exercise we need and want. We weren't fast or agile, but we were doing things in our own way, and this is allowed.

"You need more exercise" offended me for another reason. I live on streets, not by mountains. Walking out in the wild takes courage, when I am scrambling up some rocks or finding my way over unfamiliar ground I am vulnerable. A casual order such as "you need more exercise" is insensitive. A welcome to the hillside, and congratulations on having got that far would have been a much better bet.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth I replied: "No we don't" in the tone of a sullen teenager. It's not a great response, but I am glad this was my default, rather than something that communicated an apology for existing. Then I got angry and called him a judgmental prick. The woman scurried along behind him and I felt like shouting that I felt sorry for her, but I didn't.

I hate getting riled by strangers, I usually stay silent because shouting back rarely makes me feel good. So it was with this incident, it cast a pall over what had been a pleasant walk, and I worried afterwards when we stopped for a rest that we would see him and have a confrontation in the only pub for miles.

This is a bitty post, I think the main thing is about documenting fatphobia. It was a tiny (but big) thing said in an unlikely place, out in the wild, there really is no escaping people's hate.

The episode has made me think about what it is to put yourself out there in nature when you are fat. I can't speak for Kay but I know that I tend to feel like a fraud when I am walking in the countryside. I go slowly and carefully, I'm not one of those striders. I don't look the part. I wear boots I got from the Big Bum Jumble, but I don't have any special gear, mostly I just put on some jeans, a hoodie or a raincoat. Not that I could wear anything else, fancy walking gear doesn't come in my size. Outdoorsy marketing would suggest that the hills and lakes are the domain of wiry and muscly white people who run everywhere. Of the other people we saw whilst we were out and about in Cumbria, none really looked like us.

The fraudulent feeling is connected to a broader sense that I don't belong out in the world, that exploring wild terrain, or feeling a connection to nature is for other people, like the man we encountered, not me. (I know that some black and Asian people in the UK have written about not going to or feeling part of the countryside, with good reason, I too associate country politics and culture with intolerance). Anyway, this is a terrible feeling, not helped by that guy's thoughtless comment, or organisations like the Ramblers Association and their bullshit anti-obesity campaigning. I want to feel more able to enter wild places and feel that I belong there as a queer fat woman. Suggestions as to how to do this are welcome.

Edited to add: Sazz has ideas about this.

01 October 2012

I entered the 2012 World Gurning Championships

Charlotte at The 2012 World Gurning Championships
This post isn't really about fat, but it is about beauty and ugliness. I tend to avoid writing about overlapping subjects that I think are often taken as proxies for fat, particularly within feminist theory, because I don't want to lose the centrality of fat to the things I'm working on or thinking about. But here I am making an exception because this experience was so extraordinary.

I don't know when I first encountered gurning. I think I was really young. Perhaps I found out about it from watching The Generation Game, or some local news snippet. The idea of gurning on mainstream TV is ludicrous today, but times were different then. As with life's greatest pleasures, gurning appealed and appalled in equal measure. I think it would be hard to find someone of my generation and demographic who isn't faintly obsessed by it.

Gurning, for people who don't know, is the act of pulling a really grotesque face. The idea is to rearrange your features in the most bizarre and dramatic way possible, without using your hands or any other devices. Its sheer muscle power and imagination. Gurning is about transforming your face. People who are very pretty, very ugly, old, or with supernatural facial control have an advantage as gurners, as do people with no teeth. People on certain rave drugs often find themselves gurning like crazy at 4am, but this is a different kind of gurning to that which I am talking about here.

Egremont, a small town in Cumbria, is the place to be if you are a gurner. Every September the town hosts The Egremont Crab Fair, a gathering that first took place in 1267. The Crab Fair includes a parade, an agricultural fair, a funfair, street entertainment, and The World Gurning Championships.

There are three competitions in the Championship: Junior, Ladies' and Men's. For 27 years the Ladies' competition had been dominated by Anne Woods, but age and frailty had brought about her retirement. In 2011 a younger woman took the trophy. My girlfriend Kay saw her picture in the paper one morning and thought "I could do better than that." This is how the pair of us ended up 300 miles from home, gurning for our lives in front of a packed Market Hall.

We arrived at Egremont too late to see the street parade, but in time to enjoy some of the goings-on in the field. My favourite things were the giant onions in the produce competition, the fancy pigeon competition, the ferret display, and Egremont Town Band. I wish I'd had a better view of the Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling competition. I stroked an owl and Kay patted a horse. It was a grey day, but people weren't put off by that, or the mud, and there was a good turn-out.

We went off to get some dinner, and then returned to the Market Hall, arriving to a set by Don MacKay, a crooner who sang some karaoke pop hits to get everyone going. A pair of beautiful oil paintings of legendary gurners decorated each side of the stage, we'd come to the right place! In the build-up to the gurning competitions, we enjoyed a Junior Talent Contest, and other competitions for horn-blowing and, er, hunting songs, as well as some comedy and singing. The crowd got busier as the night went on, there was a great atmosphere.

Then it was gurning time. The compere brought on the judges: the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Copeland, the boss of Egremont and Area Regeneration Partnership, and a bigwig from Sellafield, the local nuclear power plant that employs many people in and around Egremont. They sat at a table at the side of the stage.

Anyone can sign up to take part in the Championship. You just have to go and put your name down on the list for each competition. You then get called up to the stage, the compere asks where you're from, and you go over to another guy called Kevin who puts the braffin round your neck. The braffin is a horse collar used to frame each gurner's face. You gurn, he guides you to the judges where you gurn at each of them in turn. Kevin then shuffles you to the middle of the stage, where you gurn wildly at the audience to the left, the centre and the right. Everyone gets a good look at your gurn and cheers or cringes appropriately. I didn't realise this before, but your stance is also part of the gurn, lots of people pulled a kind of ape-like, lumbering stance, most people are sort of crouch when they put on the braffin, like they're ready to spring at you. It is an assertive stance. After you've gurned, the braffin comes off, you leave the stage and watch the rest, hoping that you've given it your best.

During the wonderful kids' competition I started to see a bit more of what gurning is about, or at least what I think it's about. The rules say that you are judged on your ability to transform your face. Before the competition, I wondered if gurning drew on people's fear and hatred of disabled faces, or underclass faces. When I was a kid it was common to do disablist renditions of 'flid' or 'spazz' in the playground, indicating stupidity. I wondered, too, if the gurn was connected to racist caricatures of the primitive savage, especially given people's animalistic stances. I'm not sure, but I don't think so. Gurning looked much more to me like an embodied discourse of disrespect using the pleasures of being really grotesque. This is very queer, I think. You gurn to a panel of the great and the good, in front of an audience of people over whom they have power. I couldn't help but think that this was a great subversion of their power, and a reclaiming of power for the people. "You think you're so great? Here's what I think of you, and you can't touch me," is the sentiment I felt in the competition. It reminded me of sticking your tongue out, or pulling a face behind one's back, forms of resistance that anyone can do. Although you're gurning at the judges, you're gurning for the audience, from which you come and to which you return. Generations of gurning families take part in the Championships every year. I love that passing-on of gurning know-how.

I hadn't planned on entering myself into the gurning, but I enjoyed seeing the kids pull faces at the Lord and Lady Mayor so much that I thought, "Why not?". Who wouldn't want the chance to pull a terrible face at a manager of a nuclear power plant in front of people he hires, fires and bosses around? Kay didn't mind and didn't think I'd be stealing her thunder. I practised a face quickly, downturned mouth, crinkly chin, cross-eyes, and surprised eyebrows. That would do.

Suddenly it was the Ladies' competition and I was called up first. My legs were shaking as I got on the stage. I went and gurned as hard as I could. I couldn't really see anything because my eyes were crossed, but I made out the kindly and interested judges' expressions as I pulled the most insolent face at them I could muster. As Kevin shuffled me to the middle of the stage, I felt that I had to do something with my arms, so I pretended to be an angry bearcat and clawed at the air with my fingers. Here's a tiny video clip (.mov, 3mb). Kevin took the braffin off me and I nipped down the stairs to watch Kay take her turn. She was brilliant.

Kay's secret weapon in the competition was her fat neck, a feature that she had already put to good use in various fancy dress scenarios, and in group or formal photographs where she wishes to convey disrespect. I have a photo of her doing 'fat neck' on the jumbotron at the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Park, for example, as well as another of her standing with a pair of armed police. I would like to get a picture of her doing fat neck with a royal, or one of the Camerons. I didn't think fat neck was enough to get her through the competition, so she pulled a variety of faces and in the weeks before the competition I coached her through a gurn that drew on the best elements. This included fat neck, protuberant wet lips, one big bulging glaring eye, one small, and some forehead wrinkles. Killer!

I feel compelled to talk about gender and gurning. The women's – or rather, ladies' – competition is secondary to the men's. I don't know how long there has been a women's competition, they aren't included on the Crab Fair's Gurning Hall of Fame, although there are notes that women entered the main competition for the first time in 1966, and 1974 was the only time a woman in that competition reached the top three. The women's prizes are smaller, there are fewer entrants, and far less fanfair, although 2012 marked the first time the Anne Woods prize, a special prize, was awarded to the women's winner.

I think it's terrible that women are secondary, though it reflects a common and wider marginalisation of women in sport in general. It might also echo the social positioning of women in northern working class communities such as Egremont, most of the entrants were from much further away whereas the men's competition is more local. But gurning is far risker for a woman than for a man. Women are supposed to be pretty and nice, and compliant. Gurning is a fantastic refusal of those social constrictions, it is a really brave thing for a woman, a lady no less, to make herself publicly and gloriously ugly, or to flaunt her age or toothlessness, and to seek reward for it. I think the guts of women who dare to gurn should be acknowledged.

There was a short break and then it was the men's competition. About twenty men took part, give or take a few. Up they popped, one after the other. Most were forgettable, but some were really amazing. How do they get their faces to do that? It was no surprise that Tommy Mattinson scooped the title for the fourteenth(?) time. In everyday life he looks like a distant cousin of George Michael, but that braffin transforms him into something eye-popping and inexplicable. I can't even describe it, let alone think about how he manages to do it. His gurn is terrifying and awesome. The runners up also did things with their faces too weird to understand.

Neither Kay nor I won the women's title, alas. But Kay came second! She won a rosette, a plaque and £20. We were elated! I think Kay's gurn must have been really good for the judges to award a southerner a prize. Helen Irving was truly deserving of the winning spot, delivering a gurn in which she, um, inflated her face. As we left the Market Hall, we saw her sitting with Anne Woods, hopefully swapping tips and notes. Gurn on, sisters.