28 December 2013

New Year weight loss bingo

I saw my first new year diet ad on TV at about 11pm on Boxing Day. "Those rotten sods!" I thought, hoping that I'd have at least until 1 January until the annual cavalcade of weight loss advertising rolled in. Instead, the usual culprits are expanding their seasonal marketing window of opportunity for guilt-tripping gullible consumers into signing up for a dose of snake oil. Nothing screams holidays like a series of corporate multinationals selling lies about your body.

My enjoyment of xmas and the new year is invariably wrecked by the knowledge of what looms: the most intense time of the year for weight loss marketing and fatphobia. But enough is enough. I've decided to stop cringing, actively engage with this nonsense, and encourage others to do so too. I want to transform its negative power in my life and put it where it belongs: in a world of ridicule.

New Year Weight Loss Balderdash Bingo is a game that anyone can play. Based on a Generation X parlour game, it will have you begging for another diet cliché so that you can rack up another line on the card and win the prize that is rightfully yours.

How to play:
  1. Print or share New Year Weight Loss Balderdash Bingo cards (.pdf, 110kb) for you and your pals.
  2. Decide upon a suitable prize amongst yourselves (I usually play for a foot-rub or a cocktail).
  3. Stay alert and immerse yourself in popular culture fearlessly.
  4. Cross off each new year weight loss cliché as you encounter it.
  5. When you have a vertical, horizontal or diagonal line, yell: "This is balderdash!"
  6. The first person in your group to get a full house wins the prize.

13 December 2013

Conference Report: November 2013 fat talks

I spent a chunk of November travelling and talking about fat with people*. I really enjoy presenting and hosting workshops, but my confidence has taken a knock recently and these events represented me getting back in the saddle.

Plus London

Organised by members of the fatshion blogging community in the UK, Plus London is now in its third year. Clothes, companies and brands take up a lot of the event, but this year the organisers wanted to develop more community-based discussions. This panel was focussed on 'confidence'. Host Isha Reid asked whether confidence is innate or externally validated; about stereotypes and how to negotiate media. It took me a while to get into the subject, I feel pretty out of touch with this crowd in general, but it was heartening to see people show up and engage, folks were warm and friendly. As a therapist and sometime sociologist, I'm interested in what people mean when they talk about confidence, how it's socially constructed and what it is that people are pursuing when they talk about wanting more of it. As a fat activist it's interesting hearing this term used within this particular community. For example, how does fatshion, and the consumerism that is often a part of it, affect fat people's sense of themselves as confident beings? What does it mean to be fat and confident? I came away with more questions than I'd anticipated.

Fat Sexualities

This was a panel talk, part of a bigger series of panels about sexuality that happen every few months. They're convened in London by Gender and Sexuality Talks and are sort of scholarly yet accessible.

Three of us talked, and then a fourth, Dr Caroline Walters, joined in the discussion. Ingo of Wotever World talked about how making DIY porn enables fat people to claim their bodies and sexuality. Bethany Rutter talked about her journey of self-acceptance, and how that's affected her sexuality. I think it was very brave of the three of us to talk, and I appreciate the work that Gender and Sexuality Talks did to enable us to feel that we could speak our own truths.

I talked about my own sexuality and said that it is next to impossible to develop an understanding of what might be meant by fat sexualities in the current climate of fat panic, which always frames fat experience in terms of health. I offered this observation to pre-empt the usual "But is it healthy to be fat?" questions that come up when you do a panel discussion about fat for people who might not be aware of fat activism. I noticed that although nobody offered that particular question, the discussion did come back to health to some extent. I appreciate the attempt to make space for something else, but I wonder if it will ever be possible for people to extend a discussion about fat beyond a public health sphere. Of course there were other questions, the issue of confidence came up again, finding partners, dating. But health is always the bedrock from which fat talk emanates in public. I wish it was different, there's so much to say about fat that isn't grounded in health discourse.

Fat Activism at LaDIYfest Sheffield

The Ladyfest phenomenon has been going for some time and has mutated into other forms, like LaDIYfest. Nevertheless, in the UK at least it still seems to be a space in which young, predominantly white middle class people, become aware of and hone their politics across a variety of feminist topics. Fat has become one of them.

LaDIYfest Sheffield invited me to talk about fat activism and I proposed a freeform group discussion about what we think fat activism is, examples of things we like an don't like, and ideas for things we'd like to do. What was lovely about the workshop was that a) it was packed, b) it was in an accessible space and c) although fat people were well in the minority, the atmosphere was open and people had things to say. It's heartening to hear normatively-sized people talk about what they want to do to challenge fatphobia without trying to appropriate fat people's experience, and to hear sophisticated points of view issuing forth. Great, also, to witness fat people's engagement and awakening interest in this stuff, perhaps facilitated by the general atmosphere of support. As the artist-activist-scholar Naima Lowe pointed out recently, these sentiments don't occur in a vacuum; people know about fat activism because of fat activists' work. By the way, I was glad to see Yorkshire Rad Fat Collective representin' in the room.

Dr Fat's Show and Tell at L-Fest with Fat Positivity Belgium, Brussels

Fat Positivity Belgium are a new-ish, feminist, queer, mixed fat activist group with a large disability activism component. They invited me to talk at the beautiful Rainbow House queer community centre as part of that organisation's L-Fest, an annual dyke-centric arts and politics festival in Brussels.

The first part of the event was a talk by me. There's no way I can talk about all the fat activism I've ever done, so I offered people a lucky dip, a choice of many things where they could pick the ones that looked most interesting to them. The idea was to introduce some wide open possibilities for activism, and to encourage people to think about how they might adapt ideas and develop their own fat activism.

The second part of the event was participatory. I'd been thinking about developing the Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline project again. This is a piece of work that has morphed in various ways and has become a zine, a workshop, a download, an academic paper, and so on. So far this has been based on one Timeline. I wanted to make another one that reflected a different time and place to the one that was constructed in Oakland in 2010. I also wanted to use my experience to encourage Fat Positivity Belgium, this new group, to identify significant events in fat activism in their context, and to make connections between the personal and political.

So, we got the paper out and started populating it with moments and memories. We decorated the Timeline with glitter and stickers. I noticed that it was hard for people to write about things that were painful, one person wanted to write slogans instead and I prodded her to write more personally if she was able. People wondered if it was ok to write about things that were sad or depressing (yes!). Some people hung back, perhaps they didn't think that they had anything to add. There were some tears as memories surfaced. It was beautiful to see memories stretching back a long way, this challenges the idea that fat activism is only a very recent thing. Belgium is a place where people speak different languages and it was great to see people adding to the Timeline in their own tongues. At the end of the session, the work was rolled up and given to Fat Positivity Belgium to develop in whatever way they chose.

I really want to disrupt this pernicious idea that there is only one fat activist history, that it's about facts and not memories, that it inevitably radiates from the US, from certain celebrities and organisations, and that things which don't fit that model don't really count as history. Creating a Timeline together is like a movement materialising in front of your very eyes. It's about personal moments, often extremely intimate moments of the body, being placed in a wider framework of politics and community. Unexpected things come up and are placed within the discursive matrix of fat activism and are given meaning, they're no longer isolated and odd moments. The Timeline enables people to feel less alone, and also to have some context for their lives. It's a convivial and informal process. It's really powerful.

The Fat Positivity Belgium Queen and Trans Fat Activist Timeline made me think that there could be many Timelines, reflecting different communities and people, ideas and places. Being in Belgium and spending time with the group was a great experience for me. Fat Positivity Belgium is a multifaceted project and the people in the group are very thoughtful about fat activism and what it might mean. It's exciting to see European fat activist networks begin to emerge. As someone without much in the way of language skills, I always thought that this would be difficult to achieve. Apparently not!

Many thanks to everyone who invited me to speak. If you would like me to come and talk fat with your group, please get in touch. You can also check out some of my other talks.

*I also gave a presentation at Outburst in Belfast about queer and class where I mentioned the Fattylympics amongst other things.

03 December 2013

Hipsters flogging fat hate in San Francisco

A clothes shop in San Francisco is using fat abjection to sell their shit to sensitive hipsters. Pose with the ugly old fatty! The perfect seasonal InstagramTM! No plus sizes here!

I saw this mentioned on BoingBoing.net: Santa the Hutt: grotesque photo-op Santa. I don't know where the boxed text comes from, it's not on any of the links included in the article, perhaps it's a press release that BoingBoing has cut and pasted (oh, hello Churnalism). The fat Santa is referred to as grotesque, vile, gorged, too obese to move, slovenly, groaning, sweaty, a danger to elves! People are warned against getting too close to him and advised to disinfect and take penicillin afterwards.

Apparently the shop is trying to use disgusting deathfat to make an important and serious statement about overconsumption. Yeah chinstrokers, retailers on the make with cheap hate-gags know all about greed and overconsumption. If you find any of their fatphobic stereotyping offensive then you obviously have no sense of humour.

I'm wondering if there are any Bay Area fat activists who'd like to head over to this store, Betabrand on Valencia, and tell them where to shove their fat hatred.

By the way, for all the critical reporting they do about science, no-nonsense coverage of digital justice, and general championing of activism and weirdness, it's a shame that BoingBoing has never really got it together in their treatment of fat. You'd think they'd be gagging for a subject that frequently exposes shitty science, corporate greed, life-hacking and oddball subcultures. Sad.

12 November 2013

Hot & Heavy One Year On

Virgie Tovar invited contributors to her wonderful anthology Hot & Heavy to reflect on the year since the book as published.

How could I resist?

Check out my piece Claiming Fat Power.

08 November 2013

Shadow on a Tightrope, the book that made me fat

A group of fat activists have decided to write about Shadow on a Tightrope to honour the thirtieth anniversary of its publication in the US. You can find out more about this blog carnival on the Aunt Lute website: Shadow on a Tightrope’s 30th Anniversary Blog Carnival celebration is this Friday!

Shadow on a Tightrope wasn't my first encounter with fat feminist activism, but it is the book that has had the most influence on me over the years. I got a little kick the other day when I saw it on Amazon and my book, Kathleen LeBesco's Revolting Bodies, and The Fat Studies Reader were listed as titles that readers also liked! (Cooper 1998, LeBesco 2004, Rothblum and SOlovay 2009) I'm proud to be a part of the lineage Shadow on a Tightrope established. I treasure the book deeply and want to share some thoughts inspired by it.

As I write, I realise that this blog carnival is honouring the work of older fat feminists. Some of us are older fat feminists! That's quite rare in the movement today, which is often orientated to youth, consumerism, and which has trouble claiming feminism. Once more I want to prod people and remind them that they wouldn't be here without that bunch of unruly women who made it possible.

Rotunda Press

My copy is brittle, age-flecked, annotated and dog-eared. It's an anomaly; it looks the same as the Aunt Lute edition, but it was published in the UK by Rotunda Press (Schoenfielder and Wieser 1983, Schoenfielder and Wieser 1989). Technically there are a few years to go until we can celebrate the book's anniversary in the UK! Maybe we can have another party in 2019? There's no list of contributors at the back, only some blurb about Rotunda, who disappeared without trace after republishing the book. I've scanned the back page so that readers familiar with the Aunt Lute version can compare and contrast. It's only occurred to me just this minute that I might have a pirate knock-off. Perhaps there were other unofficial translations and editions.

Rotunda Press back page
I'm fairly sure that the Rotunda edition came about in the flurry of activity that surrounded the first London Fat Women's Group. I got a copy, it must have been around 1989, about the same time as the London Fat Women's Group Conference, which took place in March at the London Women's Centre in Holborn. This event spawned TV programmes and appearances, and is where Shelly Bovey researched the first edition of her book Being Fat Is Not a Sin, and went on to produce a series of thoughtful books about fat (Bovey 1989, Bovey 1994, Bovey 2000, Bovey 2001). I know, too, that the Aunt Lute edition was crucial in enabling fat feminism to travel to different places. In an interview with Spare Rib, Heather Smith, who was one of the prime movers at that time, talks about a friend giving her the book (Jenkins and Smith 1987). Shadow on a Tightrope itself does not get cited as much as it should, but these British initiatives and, I'm sure, other early fat feminist activists who were getting things done outside the US at that time, are beyond obscure. It's as though they never existed. US-based fat activists don't help in this respect, I find that non-US fat activism is largely written out of the few tentative histories that have emerged from the States, and that we are often invisible in fat community, or assumed not to exist. This is unacceptable and has to change.

I have a hunch that I know who published the Rotunda version, but I can't be sure. Some years ago somebody involved with Feminists Against Censorship sold some unsold boxes of the book to a second Fat Womens' Group that I had set up. We continued to distribute it cheaply to people who subscribed to Fat News until one day someone came and took them back and that was that. They seemed really angry and I never understood why. Even though this happened over 20 years ago, the schisms that emerged at that time are still unresolved and ended up having horrible consequences. It remains impossible to name names, or clear the air.

I got my copy from Silver Moon, a feminist bookshop with premises on Charing Cross Road. There were other feminist bookshops in London at the time, and a handful of radical booksellers too. Not now. Times have changed. The other thing that's changed, and rightly so, is that trans people, queers, sex-positive feminists and sex workers too have instigated useful critiques of essentialist, fundamentalist or separatist feminisms. People of colour have pointed out, repeatedly, how feminism reproduces the centrality of white voices and marginalises others. Shadow on a Tightrope emerged from a feminist sensibility to which I am grateful, and of which I am wary. Its discursive locations are not necessarily ones I might uphold now. Although this is a text I hold dear, I would have been classed as one of the enemy by some of the contributors and the world they represented in 1983. I wasn't the right kind of feminist for them at that time, and perhaps I'm still not. It wasn't until much later that I began to find my people, and although reading Shadow on a Tightrope for the first time was life-changing, it was also where I re-experienced my own marginalisation in those moments. This was primarily about the kind of feminist or queer I was, and also because I lived far from the networks of coffee shops and lesbian feminist community and amenities that many of the Shadow on a Tightrope contributors referenced and appeared to take for granted. Elana Dykewomon and Greta Rensenbrink document this period beautifully (Dykewomon 1983, Rensenbrink 2010).

Back then

Like many people, I was isolated from fat community when I first came to read the book. I think the main thing for me was reading a collection of essays and knowing that there were people with a shared idea of what it could be to be fat. Perhaps one day I might meet them. Up until then I'd had odd conversations with other people, I knew that feminists were interested in this stuff in a vague way, but the things we were able to say to each other were infused with our own shame and denial about fat. Susie Orbach's book was a great hindrance, actually damaging, and it took a long time to recover from her framing of fat as pathology, as myth, or as a subject dominated by thin women. At the time I didn't have ways to pull that apart, her work was like a terrible shadow on the margins of my life, and still is to some extent. All I really had in 1989 was the knowledge that some feminists in the US and UK, far away from where I lived, including lesbians who probably wouldn't want to know me, were talking about fat. But more importantly I knew my own life and my body, even though I was isolated, I had the vital knowledge of my own fat body, and Shadow on a Tightrope validated that knowing.

More than anything else at that time, I felt that the book spoke to me in terms of my own fatness, my class and age and sexuality. I was living a somewhat marginal existence in 1989/1990, and most of the fat activism available to me was being produced by older middle class women whose struggles and concerns were not mine. The two pieces that had the most impact on me were Judy Freespirit's account of a day in her life, and thunder's coming out: notes on fat lesbian pride (Freespirit 1983, thunder 1983).

Judy's chapter is so short and simple, but she says more here than reams of Fat Studies and sociological data on fat women's everyday experiences of stigma. Her writing may be over 30 years old, but the situations she describes are as identifiable now as they ever were. I'd recommend that anyone interested in challenging fat hatred and the stigma of fat people start with Judy's account and commit to listening to fat people, rather than the poorly mediated 'expert' or academic view.

I couldn't believe that someone could just be called thunder and that it might be possible to publish an essay in lower case vernacular. Imagine being a fat lesbian called thunder! I had been called thunder thighs pejoratively, and here was someone claiming something like that for themselves, perhaps defiantly, and writing in a voice that was their own. At that point I thought that being in a book meant that you had to write as though you were upper class. Apparently not.

I remember at the time that it was important that the book named fat oppression. Oppression is a strong word and, these days is more likely to be ameliorated through the language of 'stigma' which is much more individualised and de-politicised. But naming my experiences as oppression helped me orientate my fat politics to other politics, and this has helped me make sense of things, and enabled me to connect my experiences as a fat person to other social justice themes. I also feel somewhat reticent these days in framing all of my experiences of fat as oppression. Oppression is there, definitely, but so are wonderful and life-enhancing moments in fat community and culture. These days I want to tell stories about being fat that are not only rooted in oppression, but which also draw on the things that are great about being fat.

What it means to me now

It's a while since I sat and read Shadow on a Tightrope from cover to cover, but it remains on my shelf just above my desk, ready to be consulted, and I dip into it now and again. The book has been absolutely essential to me over the past couple of years as I've put together some research about fat activism.

Vivian Mayer's Foreword is a fantastic resource, terrifically useful and important in spite, or perhaps because of, how she documents the hard times that emerged through fat feminism as well as the good (Mayer 1983). This is no It Gets Better! Creating and sustaining communities of marginalised people is very difficult. I have got to know some of the book's contributors and I know that Mayer wrote the Foreword at a very low period for fat feminism after the implosion of the Fat Underground, and that some of the hurts that arose in that period have yet to be healed. It's funny thinking about the gap between my naïveté and the weariness of Mayer's (and other fat feminists') experience as we all approached the book. I wonder what it might have been like to have to encounter people's enthusiasm for fat feminism at a time when it had really put you through the mill. Exhausting and alienating, probably. I wish its readers had been in a better position to heal and sustain the movement's founders. Today I consider it important to draw attention to the foundations they laid, and whilst I'm not a big one for gratitude, I'm extremely glad that they did what they did.

Sharon Lia Robinson, published in Shadow on a Tightrope as Sharon Bas Hannah, has been greatly helpful in orientating me to the book and its context. Sharon continues to explore fat feminism, and other themes concerning embodiment and spirituality. She worked with Vivian Mayer, also known as Aldebaran and Sara Fishman, to produce the first drafts of the anthology. The title, Shadow on a Tightrope, comes from one of her poems, whoever i am i'm a fat woman.

Still from Uninvited Space
Sharon Lia Robinson and Susan Chancey
Recently she sent me a copy of her DVD, Uninvited Space, a rehearsal for a poetry reading at Black Star feminist theatre that she performed with Susan Chancey (Robinson 2013). Susan performed journal entries about lesbian motherhood. It was filmed in 1979 at Goddard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Sharon was on a Master's programme. The campus was close to a feminist bookshop and Sharon posted signs inviting other fat women to connect and organise. This contributed to the formation of fat feminist community in and around Boston, including Judith Stein's work and The New Haven Fat Liberation Front with Karen Stimson, who is the holder of the Largesse archive. She told me in a series of emails last week that she was interested in "creating fat feminist theatre and creative dance opportunities for fat women." She co-wrote a play called Shadow of Green that explored fat feminist themes and featured "a fat Jewess writer/prostitute" character. Sharon believes that she is "likely the first ever person to receive a degree which focused on fat activism and the arts". You can find her dissertation archived at The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, at Harvard University. There are other fat feminist holdings there too (would somebody like to fund me for a study trip, or point me to resources that would enable me to look at this stuff?)

In Uninvited Space, Sharon performs whoever i am i'm a fat woman. I have read this poem many times, but it was really fantastic to see her perform it onscreen, to have an idea of the voices and context for the book, to see what people in that moment looked like. Sharon's reading is gorgeous. As I've got to know more about the earlier parts of the movement I've come to appreciate more deeply how the book is based on Fat Liberator Publications. These were fairly ephemeral materials, though crucial for spreading the word about fat feminism. I particularly love how the book invites contemporary fat feminists to continue the discussion that the Fat Underground and its affiliated activists began. I'm so hungry to know more about early fat feminist activism. As I was watching Sharon read, I felt transported to a time and place that wasn't really mine, but which has informed how I understand fat in profound ways. I can't overstate how vital fat feminism has been to me, not only through Shadow on a Tightrope or the Fat Underground, but also via the London Fat Women's Group, FaT GiRL, NOLOSE, Fat Studies in the UK and the friends and loved ones who have come along the way as a result of it. I feel as though I am a time travelling envoy for the movement, zipping backwards and forwards between these moments, wanting the work to develop. Perhaps this blog carnival is a way of extending that discussion further. I hope that successive waves of fat feminists continue these discussions into the future too.

References

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

Bovey, S. (1994) The Forbidden Body: why being fat is not a sin, London: Pandora.

Bovey, S. (2000) Sizeable reflections: big women living full lives, London: Women's Press.

Bovey, S. (2001) What Have You Got to Lose? The Great Weight Debate and How to Diet Successfully, London: The Women's Press.

Cooper, C. (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press.

Dykewomon, E. (1989) 'Travelling Fat' in Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., eds., Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press, 144-154.

Freespirit, J. (1989) 'A Day In My Life' in Schoenfielder, L. W., B. , ed. Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press, 118-120.

Jenkins, T. and Smith, H. (1987) 'Fat Liberation', Spare Rib, 182, 14-18.

LeBesco, K. (2004) Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Mayer, V. F. (1989) 'Foreword' in Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., eds., Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press, ix-xvii.

Rensenbrink, G. (2010) 'Fat's no Four-letter Word: Fat Feminism and Identity Politics in the 1970s and 1980s' in Levy-Navarro, E., ed. Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American Culture, Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 213-243.

Robinson, S. L. (2013) 'Uninvited Space', [online], available: http://sharonrobinson.org/ [accessed 5 November 2013].

Rothblum, E. and Solovay, S. (2009) The Fat Studies Reader, New York: New York University Press.

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

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1989) Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press.

thunder (1989) 'coming out: notes on fat lesbian pride' in Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., eds., Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press, 210-215.




07 November 2013

Fat activism, dressing up and paper dolls

I keep this box in with a drawer of photographs but haven't had a peek inside for ages. I can't believe I've been taking it for granted. It's certainly worth an outing.

It's me as a dress-up doll. My love made it for me in 1991 when I had no money, and when it was impossible for me to get things I liked or wanted to wear. Sadie is a nickname from that time, and Pizazz on Parade is the name of Mr Blackwell's bitchy celebrity fashion column in the National Enquirer, which obsessed us both. The box is a shoebox he customised, and some of the outfits are drawn in in felt-tip on the back of cereal boxes

In 1991 I still had a long way to go in terms of feeling ok in my own skin. Indeed, that's a life's work. Back then I didn't know anyone I could talk to about fat, I was very isolated. The pair of us were starting to think about queerness and drag, which turned out to be other big features in our lives. Anyway, this is one of the many things that made a difference to me. It's made with so much love and humour, it's beautiful. The normals treat us as though our lives are barren, but they are wrong. I have been so lucky to have been able to see myself reflected in this way, to have been helped to imagine other things for myself. Silly, made-up, gorgeous stuff.

Box O'Sadie!

Wigs and outfits

Beehive nudey

Voluptua was my cartoon alter-ego
from a series of comics we made together

Another Voluptua look from when she
fought the dastardly Anemone Men

Rubbery, Avengers type look

Executive Realness

Big hair farm girl

A fat lady in a bikini was a
big deal in 1991, plus flingaway big hair

Antichrist


04 November 2013

Report: Plus London 2013

I was invited to speak at a panel yesterday at the third Plus London event. This is a fatshion-based blogger community event. I hadn't been to the others, I'm not a fatshion blogger, but I am interested in what fat activism looks like in the UK, so I wanted to see what it was all about.

Our panel was chaired by Isha Reid and consisted of Dr Caroline Walters, who has been around the Fat Studies scene for a while and who specialises in sex, kink and porn; and Gina Warren, who works as Equality and Diversity consultant at Cambridge University. Isha wanted us to talk about confidence, and also about stereotyping and media. We presented a variety of views and there was a lively q&a afterwards. I won't speak for the others here, but I'll explain a little of what I said.

I mentioned that I see two parts of the work that I do as a therapist with fat clients in terms of confidence. Firstly it's about understanding and untangling what is going on for the client in terms of their feelings, experiences and beliefs; the internal stuff. But it's also about recognising the bigger picture and thinking about what can be done to disrupt a social context in which fat people are often positioned as less than human. I wanted to acknowledge that confidence isn't a free-floating thing that some people just happen to have and others don't, that it's rooted in social factors.

It was a real pleasure to talk about making your own media, and becoming a critical consumer of media. I don't think that there is good and bad media in relation to fat; the things that I like are often the things that are supposedly bad for me, and the things that people think are good usually get on my nerves! I said that it's important to understand how and why media happens (hint: it's usually about money and power).

I wish I'd remembered to say something about how fat people I know are sometimes afraid of looking at the 'bad' stuff. But the bad stuff is quite compelling to me, and looking at it gives you some insight about how fat hatred functions, which is useful if you want to avoid it. I don't know why but I don't take it personally, maybe I have enough of a robust sense of my fat self to cope with it. I wish I could transmit that feeling to other people who want it.

Plus London Three was well-attended and lasted two days. It's produced by a team of volunteers, and also receives sponsorship. It was good to see many people I don't know who are interested in developing discussions about fat, there were quite a few young people there, and many with social media expertise. It made me think of how diverse the movement is in the UK, and the spaces that act as entry points for people, the kinds of activist skills that are being developed. There are certainly many more opportunities to become active within the movement now than in 1989, when I first encountered fat activism.

It's funny, people sometimes get in touch with me because they want to know about fat activist groups, because they want to 'get involved'. But the movement doesn't really look like that here. There are performers engaged with fat, and a Fat Studies community, and occasional meet-ups, a fatshion blogosphere, a more conservative academic community, a Health At Every Size community, one-off events, organisations that include some fat stuff but aren't primarily devoted to fat activism, and so it goes. These happen at different times, they're not permanent or regular fixtures. It's not a unified movement, and some sections are antagonistic towards others, or not very connected, for example Bear culture is pretty active in the UK, but somewhat disconnected from fat culture that has feminist or academic roots.

Fat activism in the UK is kind of nebulous, and although it can be hard to refer people to specific places, it's also exciting to me that it exists in these hard-to-pin-down ways. They pop up from time to time when there's a need for them and a critical mass of people prepared to get them going. Finding this stuff might not be easy at first, but once you know where to look there are many opportunities for making things happen. Plus London is one such event and hopefully it will continue and grow, and respond to community voices, and become a great addition to the movement.

16 October 2013

It's not just the doctor that dishes out the fat talk, now the vet does it too

Ginger cat
This is Pip, also known as Mr Pip, Pippin, My Little Ginger Prince, Tiny Man and so on. My girlfriend and I are his people and he has many friends down the street. Sometimes he comes home smelling of old ladies' perfume. We adore the li'l fella, feed him, stroke him, play with him and sometimes we take him to the vet.

I first wrote about the pet diet industry in an article for the short-lived Yes! (a mainstream British women's mag about fat) in 1997. Don Kulick also wrote about this in 2009, and there may be others that I've missed since then. At the time I felt I was really avant garde in having identified this little niche, but this was before the Obesity EpidemicTM kicked in at the turn of the century and pets became an extension of weight loss industry rhetoric. Now you can't move at the vet's for charts, scales, special expensive food, and a general air of uneasiness about fat pets. I imagine there are TV programmes dedicated to this stuff too, and only a matter of time until some series like Emergency Obese Cat Weight Loss Surgery spawns its own z-list celebrity universe. This stuff is everywhere.

Last night it was time for the Furry Man's flea jab. The vet cooed over him and said that he was perfect. She gave him his jab and inspected his teeth. Then she weighed him and told us sternly that he is at his optimum weight now that he has fully grown and he mustn't put on any more. Then we packed him back in his hated travel carrier and took him home.

Ginger cat on a rugThis is not the first time that a vet has given my fat girlfriend and I the stern talk. The last time Pip had his jab, a different vet at the same surgery expressed surprise that the cat wasn't fat. He'd assumed that because we were fat, we'd be bound to have a fat pet too. Even though Pip isn't a fat cat and looks unlikely to get fat any time soon, we still got an earful about the importance of maintaining a 'good' weight.

It's very weird witnessing how cultural anxiety about fat is enacted upon an animal. It's also very weird how that anxiety is transmitted to pet owners, especially fat owners like us, by vets. Do they see themselves as our doctors too? Should I relate to them as health care professionals? It makes me wonder what kind of treatment fat owners of fat pets get, and if this has already become a mirror of the grim experience of being fat in the (human) clinic more generally. It also echoes the rhetoric about fat parenting and fat children, exemplified over the past couple of days by a new witless wonder in the news opining that "parents are to blame for fat children."

These experiences with the vet highlight how unreal obesity epidemic rhetoric feels to me. It's a kind of going through the motions, a make-work project that has nothing to do with my cat's well-being, or my own, but which is reproduced in the strangest and most pernicious ways.

References

ginger cat paws
Cooper, C. (1997) 'Would You Put Your Best Friend on a Diet?', Yes!, June/July, 14-15.

Kulick, D. (2009) 'Fat Pets' in Tomrley, C. and Kaloski Naylor, A., eds., Fat Studies in the UK, York: Raw Nerve Books, 35-50.

PS. Yes indeed, I have peppered this post with cat pics in a brazen attempt to up my viewing stats. Busted!

20 September 2013

Report: new fat theatre

You wait for donkey's years to see something on a stage that bears some relationship to your life, your body and your values. You learn not to hold your breath or hope too much because, excuse the pun, the pickings are slim. Then a load of it comes at once and it turns out that the desert isn't as barren as it used to be. Is there something in the air? I don’t know.

I've written about Scottee and Amy Lamé's performance work, and my own ventures in Homosexual Death Drive, elsewhere on this blog. No doubt I'll come back to them but for now I want to turn my attention to two performances that I've seen recently where fat is a big part of the picture.

I doubt that anyone behind Phone Whore or Love n Stuff sat down and thought: "Aha! We'll make performances about fat people!" and it's true, these are not 'fat plays', and people who are not looking for this stuff would probably not notice it. But I am looking for fat performance and, to my eyes, these pieces are dripping with it.

Phone Whore is a solo performance written and acted by Cameryn Moore, who makes part of her living as a phone sex operator in North America. The show takes us through a busy shift, we get to see Moore in action, see how the business works, and consider wider philosophical themes about consent, fantasy and sex work. Phone Whore is one of a trilogy of shows and two street performances, all touring, that take a candid view of sex and invite the audience to examine some of their preconceptions. What makes this such a great piece is that you are able to witness Moore's skill as a performer and as a sex worker. She can really tell a story. There's none of the sanctimoniousness that often colours rhetoric and policy about sex work, Moore has empathy for her punters, and she invites the audience to judge less and understand better.

Moore has a long history as a radical fat queer activist. I once had the pleasure of participating in one of her workshops, an unforgettable experience of big, collective embodiment and movement. Phone Whore could not be described as particularly physical theatre, though the discrepancy between the fantasy women to whom she gives voice and her own body is central to the play, so in that sense there is a profound physicality to the work. This is not to say that she presents her fat self as inferior to the fantasy; she also claims her own sexual space in the performance. Both fantasy woman and solid, embodied, fat, queer can exist in the same moment, without judgement. I think this is what makes her portrayal of a fat sex worker so engaging and remarkable.

Love n Stuff by Tanika Gupta is a very different kind of performance. It is currently showing at the beloved Theatre Royal Stratford, home to theatre that is political, accessible, and rooted in the local community. A two-hander, Love n Stuff build on characters I first encountered in Gupta's show-stopping Wah Wah Girls, which played at the same theatre a year ago.

Rina Fatania and Tony Jayawardena star primarily as Bindi and Mansoor a middle-aged couple from Stratford. Mansoor is sick of E15 and has decided to move to Delhi, the problem is that Bindi does not want to go with him. In the process of resolving their differences, Fatania and Jayawardena play more than 20 characters between them, with only a few props and effects. Coupled with the breakneck pace of Gupta's script, the effect is speedy and electrifying. On the night I went, I saw people in the sell-out audience (always socially diverse at this theatre), me included, weeping and shaking with laughter.

This isn't a fat play, I think it's basically about love and belonging, a sense of place, with some thoughtful references to gender and the legacies of colonialism too. Kerry Michael, the director, is a lean kind of guy but Gupta ain't so skinny, and neither are Fatania and Jayawardena. Sometimes their bodies, Fatania's especially, are used for familiar laughs. Mansoor's retort that Bindi "used to be thin" is a punch-line that got a big reaction the night I was there, and her portrayal of a sexed-up woman was also familiar turf in the canon of fat stereotypes.

I rolled my eyes but forgave these moments because the rest of the play busted apart clichés at every turn. Bindi is a fat Asian woman with a PhD, she talks about never having had the calling to have kids, she has an emotional moment on the phone to her mum who is unable to recognise her achievements. Mansoor is an engineer, he has a career, he is a skilled person. Their marriage is mixed, he's Muslim and she's Hindu. Phone Whore takes place in a milieu that might recognise and name genderfuck, and here too the actors represent other genders seamlessly, queer roles, but it is to a mainstream audience without the usual postmodern self-importance. The actors in Love n Stuff are very physical. Fatania uses her heft to make space for herself, to punish and to seduce. There is at least one dance sequence. The performers are extremely active, jumping in and out of the many characters seemingly effortlessly. Their virtuoso skills light up the stage, it is fantastic to witness.

In his book and film The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo reclaims the queer actors in cinema history that were always on the margins and never got a look-in. I often find myself doing this with fat characters, not only onscreen but also on stage, and in fact in any kind of performance. Like Russo and his readers, I think I am hungry for representation that speaks to me, and I scavenge it whenever I can. Neither Moore, nor Bindi and Mansoor are background characters, they are fully present at the centre of the performance. But my reading of them in terms of fat is still marginal; in many ways it feels like a sneaky reading, one that was not necessarily intended by the performers, playwright or director.

It's amazingly validating to see people like me telling stories about themselves. I am not Asian but I am a working class woman with a PhD and I live in Stratford and encounter people who look like Bindi and Mansoor every day. Part of the video backdrop for Love n Stuff was filmed along my road, these characters could easily be my friends and neighbours. I've also chosen not to have children and don't think of this as tragic in any way. I am not a phone sex worker, but I've thought about it, and I am an occasional pornographer. Free speech around sex, and feminist debates about that, are important to me. Seeing these tiny touchstones reflected in performance enables me to feel real in a context where I often feel, like Vito Russo's cinema queers, pushed to the side.

Phone Whore and Love n Stuff are enormously rich theatrical experiences in their own right and also as great examples of fat performance and fat culture-building. That fat is part of the way Phone Whore and Love n Stuff tell their stories is the icing on the cake, as far as I'm concerned. Seeing these performances makes me think: that's us, these are our stories, here are possibilities for what we are and might become. We are here.

12 September 2013

Fat Yoga in the UK

A couple of friends told me about a series of four fat yoga classes in London, called Yoga for Larger Bodies, which takes place in a studio in Islington. The first session happened in June, I did one at the weekend, and there are two others scheduled for October and November.

Yoga has been closely affiliated with proto-health at every size for some time. I first came across it with the Yoga for Round Bodies videos by Genia Pauli Haddon and Linda DeMarco in the mid-1990s, though I'm not sure if they were the prime movers but they were clearly on to something. 'Yoga for Round Bodies' is now the name of at least three businesses offering fat yoga classes in North America. The market for fat yoga self help literature is fast becoming saturated and the selling of fat-size yoga accoutrements looks set to turn into a growth industry. It's become a thing and is now a thing close to where I live.

Yoga is a good thing for fat people because it is adaptable. Kay Erdwinn's article Teaching Yoga for Round Bodies is a great resource that explores some of the ways in which having a fat body affects one's practise. Yoga also focuses on self-improvement at one's own pace, rather than the competitiveness that is usually associated with sporting activity. Yoga is an activity that builds strength, balance, flexibility fairly easily for fat people, including those of us who are very fat. It helps with stress management. The associated woo makes yoga appeal to a substantial demographic in fat activism: the oddballs and the leftfield folk.

What strikes me about fat yoga is the endemic use of euphemism: bodies are 'round,' 'curvy,' 'large,' 'bigger'. There is a real reluctance within the sector to use the F-word. Perhaps this reflects a wider conservatism within the sport and exercise industry, or there is a belief that fat people need soft-talking. I think this is probably a misguided attempt to acknowledge that you have to be pretty heroic and strong to turn up to a group exercise class if you are fat. But sugar-coating fat bodies does not really address the underlying and endemic problem of fatphobia in fitness cultures, the stuff that requires we be strong and heroic in the first place. So I don't find the banal language reassuring, it's somewhat alienating to me. I'd rather the reality of fat hatred was acknowledged in less patronising terms but this would require providers to talk about shame, hate and oppression in their promotional material and this is difficult to turn into sexy marketing blurb.

I've been doing yoga on and off for a number of years. I started when I was a kid. I had a teacher who was into it and she agreed to teach another girl and I some moves. Yoga has often been a part of my performance training. My most extended period of yoga was towards the end of the 1990s when I was a regular at a local class. This attracted quite a large number of mostly fat, stiff and old people and was taught by an extremely thin, wiry and strong woman. Looking back, she was pretty ruthless with us! She rarely modified poses and, if we struggled, assured us that practice would help us improve. I internalised this message and, although I loved the teacher and the class, often felt that I should just try harder at things with which I struggled. I now see that some asanas are not feasible for fat people, or need substantial modifications. For example Child Pose is usually referred to as a relaxing and neutral position but if you have belly fat it is impossible to do without raising your bum in the air, head-butting the ground, and feeling as though you are tipping forwards perilously, which is not at all relaxing. I always thought it was a problem with me and my lack of flexibility but I have a body that really isn't going to be able to curl up into a tight ball, no matter how much I practise.

Yoga for Larger Bodies is a small class with an experienced and attentive teacher. It is not super-cheap, but it is good value, the sessions last two hours, you get lots of attention and care and it takes place in a very beautiful studio, with lots of light and a gorgeous sleeping resident cat called Pearl. I was nervous about getting on the mat again, mostly because of that Child's Pose shame I mentioned above, and also because I was worried about exacerbating my arthritis. Despite this, I showed up and I was glad that I did. Our teacher was really open to modifying moves, and she was non-judgmental and warm. She provided a really good environment for our group, and the atmosphere was kind and supportive as well as focussed. We warmed-up slowly and accomplished a lot in the session.

I felt a little tender the next day, and my arthritic joints needed some soothing, but I felt that this was worth it compared to the joy that I had felt in being embodied after a long period of fairly disembodied work and life. Even though I am older and more stiff, I was surprised by how much I could do, and the unexpected strength of my own body. Perhaps my body hadn't forgotten that earlier yoga training. Some moves will always be a challenge, it was a relief to read Erdwinn's observations about the difficulties of performing a smooth sun salutation if you are fat, but I was delighted that I was able to perform elements of it that I have found very difficult in the past (hello downward-facing dog). Throughout the class I noticed moments of deep compassion for my body, and the bodies of other fat people, and familiarity and peace in my own flesh and bones.

I don't know if Yoga for Larger Bodies is going to be a continuing class, or is a pilot for more regular fat yoga gatherings. Neither am I sure if it is the first fat yoga class in the UK, there may have been some attempts in the 1990s, and there are certainly other fat yoga practitioners in the country, but it's the only one I know of at the moment. I hope it develops because it was a really good experience and I want to go back.

07 August 2013

Revisiting Malta's megalithic fat women

Donkey's years ago, my friend sent me a postcard from Malta. It had a picture of the legs and skirt of a giantly fat figure, carved out of rock between 2500 and 4000 years ago during the island's megalithic period. I kept the postcard. Over the years, the image of this ancient fat figure stayed with me and I hoped that I would see it one day. This year I got the chance.

There are 11 prehistoric temples in Malta, and other ancient relics that you can visit, where there are reproductions of the fat figures. I wanted to see the originals so, two weeks ago, after a morning at the second worst themepark in the world, I paid a visit to The National Museum of Archeology in Valletta, where there is a room dedicated to them.

I thought the giant fat figure would be all there was to see. A while back I was lucky enough to visit the Venus of Willendorf at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. She is on display with a handful of other venuses and I thought this would be like that. I was completely unprepared for the scale, range and diversity of the display, there were statues a couple of metres wide, and tiny figures that would sit in the palm of your hand. Some very rough, many damaged, some finely detailed. I didn't count, but there were many, many prehistoric figures of fat people, they dominated the collection.

Many of the figures looked like people I know. Some looked like me. They were sitting, lying, standing. They looked feminine to me, but I didn't think the gender was cut and dried, maybe skirts weren't only for women 4000 years ago. The figure from the postcard was there, I enjoy old school museum labels, and this one did not disappoint:

"This colossal statue which must have originally stood at nearly three metres, occupied a prominent position in the Tarxien temple. Being the largest figure found to date the role of this statue must have been of great importance."

Well, it's certainly of great importance to me in 2013. Some figures were headless, which made me laugh, given my interest in a headless fatty, but there were also heads that could be attached to some of the figures. I also became interested in how these ancient figures were transformed into tourist tat. There's a market for this stuff, you too can have a Venus of Malta fridge magnet, or a plaster model of the colossal statue. The fatness of these figures is not something that turns people off, these fat bodies do not horrify, though the craftsmanship of the tat is something else.

Typically, prehistoric fat figures are described as fertility symbols, based on the assumption that a fat feminine arse makes you good for making babies. Tell that to the fat women who are denied reproductive technologies until they lose weight! I don't buy the idea that fat is inherently nurturing and motherly, I think this is a mythology propagated by fetishists. CM Donald's poem illustrates this nicely:
To those women

      To those women
Who find me cuddly,
Who like fat women
And want to hug them all:

I am not your mother,
Your baby or your shelter
And I am not your blasted teddy bear (Donald, 1986, p.50)

One of the treasures of the collection is called The Sleeping Lady, a very delicately carved figure with heavy arms and thighs. In an esoteric essay about magick, fetishism and the body, Tim O'Neill suggests that The Sleeping Lady is a figurative representation of the idea that fat women's bellies are conduits for spirits. He proposes that these figures are the result of a ritual fattening process for priestess that sends them into a dream trance:

"Their huge bodies became laboratories for neurochemically altered frames of awareness, as well as pleasure palaces of the Goddess." (O'Neill, 1987, p.91)
The original purposes and meanings of these figures is not going to be known, they can only be reinterpreted by contemporary standards. This leaves me free to create meaning out of them for myself. As someone with no innate sense of fertility in my fat, I am happily child-free and hope to remain so, and as an atheist I leave O'Neill's woo well alone (though I'll take the pleasure).

But witnessing these figures is undeniably spiritual, meaning, for me, a profound and almost inexplicable uplifting sense of connection to a historical human bigness rather than a belief that I have a supernatural essence that lives inside my body. I had a similar feeling when I worked on an oral history of older lesbian, gay, bi and trans people about ten years ago: I gained a sense that I am part of the mystery of humanity, something much bigger than me, something that came before me and will continue after I am gone, something to which I contribute in my own way.

I draw strength from those LGBT elders in the way that I also draw comfort and strength through knowing that, regardless of these being representations of actual people, people knew what a fat body looked like 4000 years ago. The rhetoric of obesity epidemiology promotes the idea that fat is recent, a crisis, a sick symbol of late capitalism, a blip that must be removed. But my body, and the bodies of other fat people I know, are as ancient and established as any other kind of body. We are absolutely legitimate and can clearly claim our place in the world because we belong here along with everyone else.


I'm interested in mapping sites of fat culture. I think A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline did this to a small extent, but I'd like to make a map of places where there are possibilities for rich encounters with fat culture. The National Museum of Archeology in Valletta, and the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna are two such places. The display of the celebrated 18th century fat man Edward Bright in Maldon's local museum is another. I have visited the grave of Lizzie Whitlock, a circus fat lady, buried in Batavia, Michigan. I have rifled through fat activist archives. There must be many other sites, and not restricted to the august institutions of the West either. Where are these places? Let's name them and visit them together.

References

Donald, C. M. (1986) The fat woman measures up, Charlottetown, P.E.I: Ragweed.

O'Neill, T. (1987, 1990) 'Surgeons and Gluttons in the House of Flesh: Notes on the Hidden Unity Between the Additive and Subtractive Fetishes' in Parfrey, A., ed. Apocalypse Culture, Expanded & Revised ed., Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 89-97.

06 August 2013

Fat activism is not always about being skinny

There's been a little burst of articles recently, blog posts, pieces for independent websites as well as big media, about how thin women have it hard too, and that 'skinny-shaming' is as bad as 'fat-shaming'.

(First, a slight digression. Although I think that shame is fairly central to these concepts, I think the term 'shaming' is a bit limited here because of its individualism. I think that the interactions between people that happen at the sharp end of fat hatred are not only about that moment or the people involved, but that they are underscored by broader social values. The guy on the escalator looking at me and berating his kid for not taking the stairs because they don't want to get fat may be a fatphobe, but he's acting within a context where concepts such as 'obesogenic', 'childhood obesity,' the National Child Measurement Programme, and 'the global obesity epidemic' are in full swing, for example, and have real, material effects on people. These concepts haven't come from nowhere, either. I use fat hatred and fatphobia too, though these are also limited terms for the phenomenon. We need more language.)

I think of these articles as a kind of backlash that illustrates how arguments central to fat activism, once extremely marginal, are becoming part of the mainstream. They're by women who are disgruntled that fat activism has not stopped them bearing the brunt of hateful comments about their bodies.

I am sorry that anyone has to defend their bodies against socially-sanctioned hate. Sometimes, as these writers explain, hateful comments come from fat people who use hate to refute the hate directed at them. Clichés about 'real women' being 'curvy' for example (if ever there was a word saturated with self-hatred it is the substitution of the euphemism 'curvy' for 'fat'), and the use of 'skinny bitch' or 'stick insect' as insults are part of this strategy of bolstering up oneself at the expense of others. This is certainly a problem within the movement. Creating a counter-attack that demeans thinner people is not a viable route to liberation. I don't think that thin people are the enemy. Upholders of institutional fat hatred are usually normatively-sized, but that doesn’t mean that every thin person has it in for fat people.

But it is also a mistake to think of thin as the opposite of fat, and therefore essential to fat activism. This is an easy mistake to make because of the popular assumption that anorexia/starvation and obesity are mirror images of each other, as well as the argument that the social hatred of fat people's bodies affects people of all sizes. Nicky Diamond, a feminist academic writing in the 1980s, argued that fat and thin are in an unavoidable relationship with each other, they define each other and are meaningless alone. But I think that this is becoming less so as fat community and culture become established; I see this as being about acknowledging and communicating the particular qualities and experiences of being fat. Mostly the fat in fat activism is really just about fat.

Thin is not fat. Just as my experiences of fatness will differ from others', especially those who are much fatter than me, or relatively normative, so thin people's experiencing of their bodies is different to fat. In addition, sure, most of us live in circumstances where it is difficult to feel free in our bodies, but fat people experience this in particular ways that thinner or normatively-sized people don't. Access to healthcare is different, for example, so is representation, and so on.

Perhaps it is unrealistic for thin and/or normatively-sized women, including those recovering from eating disorders where they have become very thin, to expect to find all the answers they are looking for within this movement. Fat activism may have the indirect outcome of enabling thinner women to live more freely, but that is not its primary purpose. There are a rash of, rather weak in my opinion, 'body-image' activist interventions, which thinness is much more central, and which tend to have the usual problems associated with corporate sponsorship of activism, a conservative agenda and the like. Perhaps the task here is for thinner people, including women, who want social change, to reinvigorate a body-related activism with some radical politics.

To me, there is quite a bit of irony in the idea of thin people being disappointed with fat feminist activism because fat people have been locked out of the conversation about our bodies for a long time. This is especially true in medicine and health, but also happens where you'd think there would be a more nuanced and liberatory approach. Normatively-sized feminists continue to dominate discourse about fat in academia, for example. Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight is still required reading on curricula about the body, and Lauren Berlant and Elspeth Probyn have published articles groaning with fatphobia, yet maintain their status within the canon. Even the successful academics who are more sympathetic to Fat Studies tend to be thin.

This post is not an argument for separatism. I do think there is potential for fat activism that includes people of all sizes, and not as fat people/allies, but as equals. I started The Chubsters as a mixed intervention, for example, and it's been great to see normatively-sized people get on board with that and realise that they can contribute to things too. I guess I'm asking thinner people, the kinds of women who have been writing these gripey articles, to wake up a bit and stop blaming fat activism for not fixing their lives, perhaps not to assume that it's always all about them, to notice that this might be a different way of seeing, understanding and acting in relation to our bodies.

References

Berlant, Lauren. (2007) 'Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)', Critical Inquiry, 33, 754-780.

Bordo, Susan. (2003) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and The Body, 10th anniversary ed., Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Diamond, Nicky. (1985) 'Thin is the Feminist Issue', Feminist Review, 19, 45-64.

Probyn, Elspeth. (2008) 'Silences behind the Mantra: Critiquing Feminist Fat', Feminism & Psychology, 18(3), 401-404.

16 July 2013

Research: the weight loss industry's profits

For most of my life I thought that the business pages, and business libraries, were places to avoid and now the tables have turned to the extent that I actively seek them out.

Market and Market's recent publication is one of the reasons why. It has the catchy title of North America Weight Loss/Obesity Management Market – [Meal Replacements, Slimming Centers, Nutrition & Psychological Consultancy, Treadmill, Ellipticals, Strength Training, Gastric Bypass, Intragastric Balloon System, StomaphyX] – Forecasts to 2017. It runs to about 200 pages and has 123 tables. If you want to read the whole thing you'll have to shell out US$4650 (approximately £3081) for a single user licence. This is why you need a good business library, you can go there and read this kind of stuff for free.

North America Weight Loss/Obesity Management Market – Forecasts to 2017 identifies in painstaking detail the key players profiting from our fat bodies and the wider cultural fear and hatred of fatness. They're not always the corporations you would expect: Weight Watchers is up there, but then so is Pepsi and Coca-Cola, and there is a huge market for medical products (which presumably provides the impetus for shutting down any talk of fat beyond medicalisation, say as a community of people, or as culture). North America has the most developed market for weight loss in the world, worth about US$104 billion in 2012, according to the report. This market influences weight loss elsewhere, including through public healthcare, for example in the UK, where I live, the National Health Service spent nearly £4 million on a contract with Weight Watchers, according to a Channel 4 report. This in a context of austerity and service cuts.

As a fat activist, North America Weight Loss/Obesity Management Market – Forecasts to 2017, and others like it, make fascinating reading.

'The weight loss industry' is often invoked in fat activism as a monolithic abstraction, an overwhelming entity that can never be slain, but it actually comprises of multinational corporations who operate in ferocious competition with each other. Reading the names of the companies onscreen is weirdly comforting, it makes the industry less of a phantom and more of a series of organisations who need to learn that their exploitation of fat people, and of fatphobia, has to stop.

What interests me further is how this particular report confirms my own research and that of others within Fat Studies. It reiterates the usual argument that the world is getting fatter and Something Must Be Done, but demonstrates that the 2000 World Health Organization report on obesity, authored by industry beneficiaries, was critical to the explosion of the weight loss market, now built on a rhetoric of epidemiology, which governments have bought into. The global obesity epidemic is and was a marketing strategy. This is worth invoking every time someone pipes up about the infallibility of obesity research and the 'scientific truth' which justifies the shoddy treatment of fat people in healthcare and beyond.

Activists might also find this report compelling because it exposes the industry's weak spots. These are:

a) Companies are afraid that people will want their money back because they sell products that do not fulfil their promises.

b) New weight loss surgeries are appearing all the time, there are many technological developments. But these are experimental surgeries, sold to desperate people, and they often go wrong and have dreadful side-effects, which the companies try and downplay. They are terrified of being sued and exposed.

c) Unethical marketing strategies permeate the industry. This is an industry vulnerable to litigation on the basis of being mis-sold products, of services backfiring, or other consumer complaints. If I was starting out in a career now, I would seriously think about becoming a lawyer representing clients of any size who want to take these muthas down.

d) I've saved the best until last: low cost alternatives mean that people don't buy in to weight loss. This means that every fat clothes swap, swim, get-together, conference, party, yoga class, zine, or whatever, that you organise, no matter how small, takes apart the weight loss industry. Low cost alternatives, the bedrock of fat activism, directly threaten weight loss industry profits. I've said this before and I'll say it again, because it needs repeating: they need us a lot more than we need them.

This post is already quite long but I want to round it up by wondering a bit more about how activists might make use of this kind of market information.

I have heard stories about activists buying one share of a company so that they can vote on stakeholder issues, or throw a spanner in the works, but I don't know if anyone ever did that with weight loss corporations in real life. If it's anything more than a rumour, please fill me in.

Boycotts and consumer activism seem obvious strategies, but fat activism lacks much of a critique of capitalism, even though the early activists spelled this out as one of the intersecting forces of oppression affecting fat people the most. Fatshion originated as such a critical voice but it soon became appropriated by a voracious consumerism. Indeed, the mass rallying of supporters to enact a boycott seems unlikely in a movement that is fragmented, and where activism is more likely to manifest through ambiguous individualised moments than collective bargaining.

Perhaps this is a long-winded way of saying that the field is open, and that there are extensive possibilities for challenging and disrupting these industries, despite their power and the massive profits they generate with presumed impunity out of our flesh.

Meanwhile, go to the library.

References

Channel 4 (2013) 'NHS spent nearly £4 million referring patients to Weight Watchers', [online], available: http://www.channel4.com/info/press/news/nhs-spent-nearly-4-million-referring-patients-to-weight-watchers [accessed 16 July 2013].

Freespirit, J. and Aldebaran (1973) Fat Liberation Manifesto, Largesse Fat Liberation Archives, Los Angeles/New Haven, CT: The Fat Underground/Largesse Fat Liberation Archives.

Marketsandmarkets.com (2013) North America Weight Loss/Obesity Management Market – [Meal Replacements, Slimming Centers, Nutrition & Psychological Consultancy, Treadmill, Ellipticals, Strength Training, Gastric Bypass, Intragastric Balloon System, StomaphyX] – Forecasts to 2017, PH 2081. Summary, table of contents available: http://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/north-america-weight-loss-obesity-management-market-1213.html

Oliver, J. E. (2006) Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America's Obesity Epidemic, New York: Oxford University Press US.

World Health Organization (2000) Obesity: Preventing and Managing the Global Epidemic, WHO Technical Report Series 894, Geneva: World Health Organization.

Grateful thanks to Substantia Jones for alerting me to this report. Click her donate button and help her buy a new computer, why dontcha.

08 July 2013

Report: The Worst of Scottee

I've been working on a show called The Worst of Scottee, it's a solo piece by, you guessed it, Scottee, the fat homosexual wunderkind of the British performance scene, instigator of Hamburger Queen, and director of Unhappy Birthday.

The Worst of Scottee, directed by Chris Goode, is an exploration of the performer's most unappealing behaviour, about the lies he's told and the people he's alienated. It's autobiographical, funny and, based on overheard design conversations, is going to look amazing. But it's also gritty; this is part redemption narrative and part: "I told everyone I had AIDS just so they would feel sorry for me." Yeah, he really did that.

My role has been to interview a bunch of people that no longer speak to Scottee because of his atrocious behaviour, to give them space to vent about what a little shit he has been, and maybe to find some insight about his conduct. These interviews have been filmed by Judy Jacob in a studio and will be screened as part of the performance. The interviewees have been very brave in coming forward to speak – and be filmed too – not necessarily knowing who the person is at first, and talking about what went wrong. 

Here's a teaser clip of one of the interviews:



I love to interview people at the best of times, and enjoy the strange crossovers between interviewing, performance and therapy that seem to emerge when I work on one of Scottee's shows. It's been a privilege to hear these people's stories, and to help make a space where reflection, humour, anger, bewilderment can happen relatively safely. It's brilliant to see how transcending the silence that surrounds relationships that ended badly can enable new creative and productive things to grow.

Anyway, enough of the woo for now. What I love about The Worst of Scottee is that it reminds me of how the worst stuff is often the best. I used to think that being fat was the worst thing I could be – wrong! In fat activist culture, there is often an emphasis on being beautiful, worthy, good, healthy, sexy and so on. This is understandable given the desire to counter the daily hatred that many of us face. But my fat liberation includes space for the horrible, the grotesque, the ugly, ridiculous, pathetic losers too. I think that being able to cope with the worst of ourselves is where freedom lies, it's about not having to present a virtuous public face, but being comfortable with our basic humanity, which isn't always pretty. This is where queer theory can be so helpful, it enables people to adore what is classified in by the normals as abhorrent; what's awful is actually great. I really love that topsy-turvy aesthetic and if The Worst of Scottee enables at least one fat queer fuck-up, or anyone else, to feel a bit more comfortable in their skin then I will be very happy.

It's been really great to work with a fat queer performer who is willing to take risks around their identity, and to push for something more. I think it's fantastic when performers with marginalised identities use their power and become advocates for a bigger life for all of us. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Beth Ditto has been such a profound role model for so many fat people; she enables people to imagine something better for themselves. I think Scottee does this through his work too, particularly with this new show and with other projects that will be on their way over the next few years. It feels amazing to be part of a company where fat and queer and working class identity is explicit as a key performance aesthetic.

The show is supported by the Arts Council, and premieres at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 1-24 August 2013, you can buy tickets online. After that, The Worst of Scottee will be touring around the UK and heads to London Spring 2014. Keep up with the hashtag #WorstofScottee and DO NOT MISS IT.

20 June 2013

Yes, I am a disease

The American Medical Association (AMA), the largest organisation of healthcare practitioners in the US, has just declared that obesity a disease. In doing so they have gone against the recommendations of their very own research and policy advisors, the Council on Science and Public Health.

Fat blogs Dances With Fat, Living 400lbs and Fatheffalump and writers elsewhere have spelled out why declaring obesity a disease is a problem for fat public health, I won't repeat their claims here. The short version is that pathologising fatness will make it harder to advocate for the things that actually do make a difference to fat people's health, eg diminishing stigma and investing in Health At Every Size (HAES)-style models of wellness.

The AMA say that classifying obesity as a disease means that more money can be corralled to fight it. I want to add my voice to those who say that defining fatness as a disease does little more than entrench and validate a market for weight loss.

I want to remind people that the construction of obesity within institutions such as the AMA, and the discourse more generally, is not part of a polite debate where people with different opinions can play fairly as equals. It is naïve to think that, with enough evidence or the right argument (our own version of the magic bullet), conservative institutions such as the AMA, who are always the most resistant to change, will see the error of their ways in upholding an oppressive model of obesity and come around. This is not about good science or rational argument. Obesity is an monodimensional industry of power, it's about the use of fat people to generate profit, about marketing hatred.

This convinces me more than ever that providing a counter discourse for fat based on an evidence base for HAES, for example, might not be that effective a strategy for changing the status quo. I am not against research grounded in HAES, but I see its use as an evangelising strategy as fighting for what amounts to crumbs of visibility within a paradigm (medicalisation, capitalism, healthism) in which liberation can never be founded.

I support the activists who are challenging the classification of obesity as a disease (see #NotADisease), and share the concern about how this ramping up of obesity rhetoric will affect people at its sharp end (no doubt the people who are already made vulnerable and marginalised by US health policy). However, I also think that this is another chessboard move of a dynasty that is losing its grip on the resource it needs most: willing fat people.

I had a conversation with a friend last week in which we talked about who exercised power in obesity discourse. The obvious answer would be that organisations like the AMA wield power. But I said that fat people also get to exert a lot of power. We have the power of experience, of being the people at the heart of things, of our bodies and of community. Disability theorists and activists have demonstrated many times that the allegedly powerful ones need us a lot more than we need them.

Although the AMA news is terrible, I think it's worth remembering that fat activists are moving away from the values that underpin obesity discourse, and have been doing so for a long time. A new cohort of politicised fat scholars are moving through the ranks and are threatening the parameters of traditional obesity research. Beyond the academy, our networks are gaining in strength, breadth and momentum. How long will it be until we have our own models for fat community health provision? Therapy practices like mine are only the beginning.

I understand the panic and upset about being labelled as a disease, it is utterly dehumanising. At the same time, the AMA is not the authority of me or my experience as a fat person. In many ways, I do feel like a treatment-resistant disease; one that is attacking the values that the AMA upholds like a virus in its system*.

Meanwhile, I think that there are a number of tactics that fat activists might make use of in order to resist this ridiculous classification:
  • Learn how to read and evaluate research so that it's easier to distinguish between what is useful and what is not.
  • Develop open source repositories of information and engage with research justice.
  • Projects like Transpulse in Canada offer a great model for building a research base. This benefits the community directly and on their terms, and is not just an exercise in convincing the mainstream of the right to exist of a particular group. See Community Based Research for more examples.
  • Understand that research and health are not the only ways of understanding fat. Learn about how queer and disabled activists have resisted medicalisation as the definitive model for understanding people.
  • Keep talking to each other about our bodies, health, and lives. Use our lived experience as a baseline for evidence.
  • Develop critical approaches to capitalism and healthcare as an integral part of the work on developing accountable fat health strategies.
  • Don't allow organisations such as the AMA to push us around. This latest escalation of the war on obesity is another desperate gasp of a dying empire.


* It is here that I turn to the work of the early AIDS activists and the ways in which they used their own classification as diseased to attack the institutions and policies that had failed to act on their behalf, and which had effectively signed their death warrants. Fat activists, aka The Diseased, might want to take note of the following, for example, and substitute hatred, stigma, crappy weight loss intervention etc for 'disease':
"Imagine what it would be like if, each time a lover, friend or stranger died of this disease, their friends, lovers or neighbors would take the dead body and drive with it in a car a hundred miles an hour to washington d.c. and blast through the gates of the white house and come to a screeching halt before the entrance and dump their lifeless form on the front steps." David Wojnarowicz courtesy of ACT UP New York.