22 March 2017

100 Fat Activists #24: Fat Lip Reader's Theater

Still from Throwing Our Weight Around
When I started writing this post I was annoyed with myself for not knowing more about Fat Lip than I do. I found out about Fat Lip through Radiance magazine, more about that later. I rationalised that this group was active largely pre-internet, that knowing more about them at the time would have meant sending off for a video from the US and having the equipment to view it in the UK. At the time these resources were beyond me.

Then I found some notes for my PhD, later my book, hidden in a folder on my computer. Apparently I know more than I think I do! This knowledge came from a series of visits to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco in 2010, where I sifted through Judy Freespirit's collection, which is held there. During these visits I also sat and watched the Fat Lip video, Throwing Our Weight Around, a series of skits, monologues and poems.

A Reader's Theatre is a means of making theatre with few resources. Fat Lip Readers Theater was a theatre by and for fat women that used fat feminism to discuss everyday joys and hassles. Fat Lip is important because it shows how culture-building is essential to political activism, it is activism.

As I understand it, Fat Lip Reader's Theater had a relationship to a show or a dance group called Fat Chance, made or performed by Judy Freespirit, perhaps others too. Yes, my details are sketchy. They were active in Oakland around 1981 or 85, had a ten year anniversary show in 1991, and reformed in 2004 for a reunion show "after a seven year hiatus", according to Big Moves, with additional performances by some Big Moves dancers. Freespirit's papers state that Fat Lip was part of the Mothertongue Feminist Theater Collective based at The San Francisco Women's Building. As well as Throwing Our Weight Around, they also released Nothing To Lose through Wolfe Video in 1989.
"Our 30 minute video includes the words and experiences of 16 fat, feisty women, speaking, acting and singing about being fat in America in the 80s. Scenes, dialogues, snappy answers to street taunts, poetry, song and more will provoke you to laughter, tears, and anger. Our message is fat positive and challenges the diet-obsessed, fat-hating culture we live in. We present it as an entertaining antidote to everyday life in America."

An early-internet listserv from 1995 describes Fat Lip as a group that toured the US and performed at lesbian and feminist gatherings. By this time they had a mission statement:

Questions from Fat Lip Workshop 1987
"Our mission is to end fat oppression and promote size acceptance through education and theatrical performance. We are a collective of fat women who present exciting, dynamic, theatrical performances about what it's really like to be a fat woman in today's society. We also offer educational workshops and in-service trainings for organization and community groups."

Other flyers and papers stated:

Fat Lip is "a collective of fourteen fat feisty women from the San Francisco Bay Area. We come together from varied backgrounds and are not afraid or ashamed of the way that we look or what we need to say."

"Our task is to say: 'Here we are. Deal with us. We are not going to hate ourselves if we get bigger and we're not going to like ourselves more if we get smaller. We like ourselves now. We are not going to put our lives on hold one minute longer.'"

The most significant documentation of Fat Lip in Freespirit's collection relates to Still Fat After All These Years!, their tenth anniversary show, performed at the Women's Building on 18 May 1991. A flyer gives some idea of what the night was like: there was non-alcoholic bar to benefit Making Waves (the fat swim); a dance after show; you could buy Fat Lip t-shirts; child care was available and the event was sign language interpreted, wheelchair accessible, with no scents or perfumes. There was a sliding scale for entrance and no one was turned away for lack of funds. The programme notes attest to a marathon evening of 54 acts and skits with an intermission and an MC! Nancy Thomas wrote this for the event:

F is For... by Nancy Thomas

F is for the fine, fat friends it gave me
A is for the audience applause
T is for the theatres we've played in
L is for loving women, which we are
I is for the images we're changing
P is for the politics we hold
Put them all together they spell FAT LIP
A group that's worth its weight in gold
And this year we are ten years old

Sadly Freespirit could not attend, she sent love and support in a note and added that because the Women's Building had been recently repainted "Some of us with environmental sensitivities will be here tonight in spirit only."

Photo by Cathy Cade
I don't know what happened to Fat Lip. There were attempts to expand and recruit new members, they were looking for "women who are somewhat familiar with the fat liberation concept, have a bit of ham in you, or want to develop new skills and confidence". They worked with a collective structure and decision-making by consensus. But the last paper in the box is a call for donations: "To put it bluntly, it has been a hand to mouth proposition". I suspect that behind the applause was a lot of hard graft and that as lives carried on something had to give. But the shows and videos were only part of what the group achieved, the women met without fail every week for over a decade, which suggests that Fat Lip was critical in establishing a fat feminist community and developing feminist analyses of fat oppression.

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