28 May 2010

Goodbye Weight Watchers in Finland

This news just in. Pinch me, I'm dreaming.

Weight Watchers is withdrawing from Finland, according to the newspaper Ilta-Sanomat. A report stated that a complete withdrawal was initiated in April 2010 after a 35-year corporate occupation of the country. Business has become increasingly unprofitable, which the company attributes to a small population spread over Finland's large geographical size. I would add that it's likely that the increased presence of radical fat activism through scholars such as Hannele Harjunen, and disillusionment with dieting is also a factor. It's really amazing that the company can't turn a profit amidst the worst ever moral panic about obesity. Weight Watchers groups in Finland will end in the summer.

I'm stunned and happy. Only 29 more countries to go until there's no more Weight Watchers anywhere.

25 May 2010

Revisiting Brigid Berlin

I've written before about Background Fatties, they're the people who don't have a starring role, but are memorable in their own right. I think of them as metaphors for the ways that fat folks are marginalised in real life. One day I'd like to see a film in which those background figures move to the front and tell their own stories.

I think of Brigid Berlin as both a background fatty and a star, though one who often seems to be nudged out of the frame by people who are prettier and skinnier than she. But she's there, undeniably, and I want to know more about her.

Like many young queers, I was drawn to accounts of The Factory as I was growing up. From A to B and Back Again was one of my favourite books as a teenager and it's no surprise that Berlin contributed significantly to that work. I also loved the pictures of her and the testimony of her then-amazingly-butch sister Richie in Jean Stein and George Plimpton's great oral history about Edie Sedgwick. Since then I get a charge whenever I see Berlin in a film, or mentioned elsewhere.

I got given some gift vouchers recently for some fat-related work I did. It seemed appropriate to spend them on books by wild-living women. I also got a copy of Vincent and Shelly Dunn Fremont's 2000 documentary Pie In The Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story. I wasn't disappointed.

I'll deal with the complicated things first. In 1999 the Fremonts show Berlin at 60 years old, relatively skinny, and living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There's a lot of anguish and suffering, it's very difficult to watch. You wish that she was better, well, but at the same time it's hard to distinguish Berlin from her OCD, it defines her work and personality. I wonder what she would be without OCD, if that would be possible, or even desirable. What she produces because of her mental health is phenomenal, it's like a total universe of her, in which obsessive art, dieting and eating disorders, and wild living all make perfect sense. Like Daniel Johnston or Roky Erickson, her mental health is an integral part of her life as a creative person, though it's a difficult life. So there's that.

Now onto the better stuff, here's what makes her heroic to me:

1. She comes from a ridiculously rich and powerful right wing family, which she disrupts effortlessly at every step with her presence as a lunatic fat girl, and her friendships with low-life freaks from all social strata. She's a spanner in the works. The Fremont's film hints at her damaged relationship with her mother and the repressive school to which she was sent, but it also shows her as someone with a healthy hatred of authority, and contempt for the world which spawned her and could not control her.

2. Berlin's weight has been up and down like crazy, and is a big part of her public identity. When it's up, she fully embodies her fatness. She's often naked in photographs and footage, and appears not to give a shit. She covers her breasts in paint in front of an audience and makes tit prints. She's cock-obsessed. Again, her fatness is a disruptive presence in a scene where skinny is prized. She also looks fucking great in clothes, the Fremonts show her prowling the streets with big bouffant hair, a grubby suede coat, and cigarettes. There's footage of her shooting up speed through her jeans, it's so lawless and punk! She looks like a big fat dyke in many photographs and she's down with that. You wonder if she even really cares about being fat, or if she's parroting those around her who make it seem as though it should matter.

3. Part of her art is telling amazing stories, and this is something that makes me fall in love with anyone. In the documentary she recalls a typical day in her young and rich life, where she'd get the flying boat to Manhattan, check her apartment there to see that everything had been cleaned nicely, go and buy some sapphire cufflinks, fly home again whilst throwing the cufflinks out the plane's window into her swimming pool for her gay ex-window-dresser husband to find later on.

Another story concerns a performance she did in which she called up a rich acquaintance on a phone that was wired to speakers in front of an audience. She told the person that she needed him to wire her money for an abortion. The guy stumped up and she left the audience for 30 minutes whilst she went and picked up the cash, which she then brought back and showed off. Power, privilege and gender, it's all there.

4. The desire to clean up fat people, fix us, and make us perfect, functional citizens/pod people is really strong, even in alternative paradigms such as Health At Every Size (HAES). There is a lot of pressure on outspoken fat people to become poster folk for the movement, to refute fat hatred by embodying virtue. Berlin is someone who might benefit from a bit of HAES, but I wouldn't count on it. Instead, her complexity and – I hesitate to use the word – 'dysfunction' are integral to who she is, they are qualities, or just characteristics, they're not necessarily flaws. I really like people like this, they are good to bear in mind.

20 May 2010

Crap art, fat, obscenity and censorship

Photo of vomiting woman removed from Leamington show

This news story made me cackle today because it's like a neat little Venn Diagram of my pet peeves and obsessions: terrible, ill-conceived, poorly-executed and pretentious art; fat panic; hand-wringing parochial community projects that bite off more than they can chew; nudity; vomiting; deathfat and abjection; obscenity; censorship; and the media, especially the BBC, as a faulty amplifier of all these things. Bring it on!

I have little compassion for any of the people involved apart from the poor fatties whose pictures were used and then taken down because they were deemed obscene. Fuck John Yeadon for perpetuating the most crass stereotypes about fat people with a particular pomposity reserved for Serious Artist Guys who are certain they have something important to say about the human condition. This work is plainly rubbish. Fuck him too for whining about censorship and trying to leverage some moral authority out of the situation. And fuck the 150 Gallery for commissioning this shower of shite.

It's hard to know where to start with this story because it's so bizarre, the detail about the vegetarian café is farcical. But I'm interested in the theme of obscenity. I'm not sure what is being called obscene here: the pictures of fat people, fat itself, fat women puking, the use of these images in the exhibition, or their positioning next to a place where people are eating.

Whilst I think that the world would be a better place if we all got along nicely, I also love it when fat people, and images of us, are disruptive and upsetting. I celebrate the obscenity of my own fat body, the tuts of those who are appalled by me, and people like me, are music to my ears. Assimilation is overrated. So I'm interested in what it is that upsets people about the images that were removed, and who is being upset, so that I can upset them some more.

I don't support censorship and I think the images should have been left up, perhaps with an apology from Yeadon. It's depressing that the images have been removed rather than being used as an opportunity to talk about this stuff. On the other hand, the 150 Gallery are clearly out of their depth and would have no means of facilitating such a dialogue. It's all a massive cock-up and such a wasted opportunity.

17 May 2010

Conference Report: ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar - 2

The second ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size (HAES) seminar took place last week at Warwick University.

Here's a recap: ESRC stands for Economic and Social Research Council, which is an agency that is funded by the UK government. The ESRC produces research and conducts training to address economic and social concerns. Getting ESRC funding for academic projects in the UK is a big deal and it was Bethan Evans of Durham University who had the great idea to apply to them for some money for a series of Fat Studies seminars. A bunch of us supported the application, which was successful (will Fat Studies projects still get funding under the new government? Erk). There are four funded seminars in total, we're two down and have two to go.

So last week a group of researchers came together to share their work under the premise of exploring Fat in the Clinic/HAES. I don't have the space or the inclination to go into detail about all of the presentations, it's likely that materials will be made available on the ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size site before too long, you can make up your own minds about them there. But I'll talk about the things that I liked very much about the seminar.

Karen Throsby gave a paper which explored the ways that weight loss surgery, or obesity surgery, is understood both within dominant obesity discourse and in fat activism. She talked about the tendency to position people who have had surgery as dupes, victims, or suffering from false consciousness. Karen described episodes of resistance, and dared to present some of the complexities in understanding fatness offered by people who have had obesity surgery. I thought her paper was very brave in the way that it rejected polarised certainties about surgery and grappled with some of the grey areas it presents. I don't think that surgery is going away any time soon, I think it's high time that fat activism developed a more nuanced and compassionate view of people who decide to take that route, and I think Karen's research is an important contribution to this end.

Sharon Curtis talked about her personal journey into HAES. It was great to see how she was able to draw upon her own resilience and strength as she was growing up, which she described with typical modesty. I was moved by the process by which she was able to work things out for herself, the way she drew upon the resources available to her, and how this enabled her to reject self-hatred, even when this was being pushed by people close to her. She's brilliant.

Lucy Aphramor had a copy of Laura McKibbin's Food For Thought Pyramid, a re-imagining of those healthy eating pyramids you see at the clinic. It's funny and right-on, take a look for yourselves.

Louise Mansfield offered a similar HAES reconstitution of the well-worn advice about how much exercise is appropriate. I enjoyed her presentation very much but one of the things that struck me about it was how she used terms such as fatphobia. I think it highlights how I don't expect normatively-sized people to understand concepts that are central and particular to my experience as a fatty, especially not academics or others involved in fields like dietetics or physical education that are often saturated with contempt for people like me. But for the moment it was strange and quite lovely to hear Louise chuck these terms around as though they are real, which they are, and to honour and respect this experience, which is largely outside her own life. It was validating.

The seminar was not a complete love-fest for me, it brought to light some of the ways in which I feel critical of HAES. This includes my own disdain for uptight professionalism which its attendant esteem for authoritative evidence and strategy at the expense of experiential ways of knowing and acting; the split between those who do and those who are done-to in research and in the clinic and the unequal/unspoken power relationships this represents; how reflexivity is not always apparent; evangelism within HAES and the pressure to be poster children for the cause. I don't expect one seminar, part of a fledgling series, to be able to respond to these criticisms, but I'm glad that it prompted me to develop my thinking around this stuff.

What has been most exciting about the two seminars so far, and which I hope will continue, is the sense that people attending feel that they are part of something. It's a relief to be able to speak up about our work without having to offer too much background explanation, or having to justify what we do. I think the seminar's accessibility is really radical: they are open to all, they're free to attend, and there are bursaries available to cover travel and accommodation for people on low incomes. This means that a mixture of people come, and there's a sense of community about them. It's thrilling to see this work grow in such a context.

The next ESRC Fat Studies and HAES seminar will take place in November, probably in London. It's theme is Experiencing and Celebrating Fatness – woo hoo! – and yours truly is co-organising it with Shirlene Badger.

Further information about the seminars

Government Support for Fat Studies and HAES in the UK

Reporting back on the first ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

Reporting back on the third ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

Reporting back on the fourth and final ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size

11 May 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: Critical Dieticians against corporate sponsorship

Hats off to Sybil Herbert, the brave Canadian dietician who has called Dieticians Canada, the "national voice of dieticians" on their corporate sponsorship in an incendiary blog post. Not surprisingly, Dieticians Canada are a little bit upset by this exposure, and they've asked Sybil to take down her post. I hope this does not happen and encourage readers to nip over and show your support for Sybil.

Corporate sponsorship of professional bodies where there a conflict of interest throws up, er, interesting ethical questions is not new, just look at the American Dietetic Association's relationship with Coca-Cola.

In the UK organisations such as the British Nutrition Foundation, the Association for the Study of Obesity, the National Obesity Forum, and let's not mention the dearly departed TOAST, are also funded by corporations whose interests they promote.

Whilst this might be a suitable model for some kinds of organisation (the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival has a sponsorship arrangement with Konditor and Cook to supply them with ace cakes – no deal could be sweeter in my opinion), it is a problematic paradigm for those that have set themselves up as apparently shining proponents of impartial information. It adds to the stranglehold that dominant obesity discourse has on the way we see our bodies and it obstructs the development of alternative readings, especially those, like Sybil's, that are critical of the status quo.

Meanwhile, fat activists should keep an eye on the excellent work being done through critical dietetics in Canada and elsewhere. You might like to start with Beyond Nutritionism – An Invitation to Critical Dietetics Dialogue. It's great.

06 May 2010

Revisiting International No Diet Day

Today's a grim day for British people, the general election promises a depressing fragmentation of what remains of the left, and the disturbing reappearance of a bunch of privileged overlords. Ugh.

Today is also International No Diet Day (INDD).

The legend goes like this: INDD was started by Mary Evans Young in 1992 as a response to her own struggles with eating disorders, and her horror of diet culture in the UK. She gathered together a group of women in London who had a picnic in Hyde Park, celebrating the beauty and diversity of human bodies, and pledging to enjoy a day where dieting and body hatred was not on the agenda. It rained that day, so the picnic relocated to Mary's place nearby.

It's a lovely story, but I'd like to think about here because, as always, there are more complicated underpinnings to the day, which still influence my attitude to it 18 years later. I know about this stuff because I was at that picnic.

Firstly, it wasn't really an impromptu picnic, it was a press conference that Mary organised under the name of Dietbreakers, which was the name she used for campaigning. It was meticulously planned! There was food around, but none of us got to eat very much because the day was an exhausting parade of reporters, television cameras, and sundry people needing a soundbite. It was exciting to be a part of it, I'd never really been on TV until then, and people wanted to talk to me because I was one of the fattest people in the room, and that's the kind of thing that TV news reports want to broadcast: an unrepentant fat girl making a show of eating stuff.

Dietbreakers was ostensibly an organisation, but it was really a one-woman show, with various unpaid helpers, of which I was one. Dietbreakers was very important in getting anti-diet rhetoric into the mainstream media for a while, pressing the British government to recognise the failure of dieting through a hearing in Parliament, a move that would be unthinkable in these days where the diet industry is crawling all over the Palace of Westminster. By participating in the whirlwind of her activity, Mary's supporters, including me, who were otherwise clueless at that time, got an amazing education in how to go about being activists in mainstream politics.

It feels disloyal offering my own views about Dietbreakers here, which hints at the problems within the organisation. Perhaps we weren't really allowed to have our own thoughts or to contradict the founder's vision. I don't think that was a conscious strategy, but it was an effect of being fairly powerless within a non-democratic and non-egalitarian non-organisation headed by a formidable personality.

I had ideological problems with Dietbreakers' assimilationist position. Then, as now, I do not court mainstream acceptance but prefer the work which takes place on the edges. Similarly, Health At Every Size has come a long way in coming to terms with its fatphobic elements (for example, the argument that weight loss is no good for the normals, but must still be advocated for the deathfats, makes an appearance from time to time), but I was coming across it with alarming regularity in 1992. Although I don't think that Dietbreakers was or is fatphobic, I felt that there were tensions between the organisation and what was important to me.

Another dynamic was that Dietbreakers was being made into a business. An early Health At Every Size programme had become a franchise and had sold Dietbreakers a licence to use its materials. The group's supporters were offered further franchises at a knock-down price. I was living an underclass existence when this offer was made to me, at a price that was far beyond my ability to pay, I felt shocked and used and that was pretty much the end of my involvement.

So I have a complicated relationship to INDD and rarely feel that I can endorse it wholeheartedly. INDD could be an important mobilising day for people. I still think it's a good idea, and has great potential. Others do too, because it has limped on for close to two decades, where Dietbreakers ended. But I think it could be more than it is, it could be a platform for some really hot fat activism. I think that INDD fails to move me because its foundations are not entirely transparent and sincere. It's based on a carefully constructed fantasy that was used to push an agenda. Maybe my cynicism is what happens when you've seen too much of what goes on behind the curtain, it's impossible to maintain the fantasy of the picnic of carefree women, coming together to fight the system. I'm sure that this is true for other people who have first hand experience of mythological events.

Today, a media event is a valid statement in its own right. Media is activism. I think what Mary did in courting the media is entirely legitimate and very skilled. Reflecting on the past now, I see that it's not the myth of the picnic that's impressive or inspiring, it's Mary's invisible work. Apart from the clearly problematic complicit silence that was required to maintain the illusion of the legend of INDD, I think Mary's strategies on that day were powerful. She constructed a story that resonated with people – which still endures – and got a big heap of attention for it. That's something I'm a lot more comfortable with celebrating.

04 May 2010

Fat activism and hate mail

It's my belief and experience that activism enriches your life beyond measure, fat activism especially so. I am happier, richer, have better relationships, stronger friendships, a more satisfying creative and intellectual life, and enjoy more amazing connections to people than I would have if I weren't a fat activist.

There are occupational hazards to being a fat activist, however. You are often held captive to people's ignorance, self-hatred and fear. Generally people are fairly polite about this, and contain it in the language of misguided concern or disapproval. Sometimes it spills out in more vitriolic ways, through hate mail.

You know you've hit a nerve when a mild-mannered call for plus-size clothing donations for a fatty jumble sale inspires: "i am overweight but to refer to me as fat is absolutely DISGUSTING WHEN YOU SAY: FAT FOLKS. GET LOST ARSEHOLE. YR AN INSULT." This was sent to one of the organisers of the forthcoming Big Bum Jumble last night.

I've had hate mail too, sometimes people email me directly, sometimes they just leave anonymous comments here.

I deal with hate mail in my own way, and variously. Sometimes I answer it politely, sometimes I publish it, sometimes I just file it away. Sometimes it upsets me, mostly it doesn't. My only consistent response is that I tell people about it, I don't carry it by myself. Usually people are very supportive.

I tell people because I'm interested in community responses to hate, especially creative reactions. Susan Stinson wrote an inspiring piece about the community support she had after receiving some hate mail, which involved a collective speak-out and news coverage. She concluded: "If this fat-hating letter was intended to reduce me to silence, it has backfired. I have returned to writing feeling more powerful and clear about resisting lies and shame about my body than I ever have in my life."

I don't have any answers to hate mail, and other hate reactions directed at fat activists, I just want to say that it happens. I want it to be known that this is part of the background to the things that I write here, the things I do, and that I am not the only fat activist at whom hate mail is directed.

Like Susan, hate mail does not make me consider stopping doing what I do, it doesn't shut me up. It's a faulty silencing strategy. A life without activism is unimaginable, there's nothing I would trade for it, especially not some rubbish someone emailed me anonymously. It doesn't make me afraid or remorseful. I think of hate mail as being just a blip along the way, a blip that's never about my own shortcomings, and one that I manage without even getting my hands dirty.

Stinson, S. (2000) 'Speakout Against Fat Hatred', Healthy Weight Journal, 14: 4, 62.