27 October 2011

Anti-obesity campaigns: appropriating fat activism

I've been rolling my eyes at Bias Busters, which Stacy Bias brought to my attention this week. Bias Busters is a new initiative by the Obesity Action Coalition, an anti-fat lobbying organisation based in the US. The nonsense rationale for Bias Busters is that stigma and discrimination against "the obese" aren't nice, so don't do it, but that doesn't mean that being fat is ok, far from it!

Those behind Bias Busters unhelpfully introduce the project with the cringe-inducing claim that "Weight bias is the last acceptable form of discrimination in today’s society." This is a statement that has been well picked-apart by fat activists for its lack of understanding of the ongoing dynamics of marginalisation, but its use exposes Bias Busters' alienation from any radical critique of fat oppression, or any other kind of oppression, come to think of it.

Bias Busters goes on to rail against fat suits, and takes credit for actions against PETA's fatphobia. This would be all well and good if the Obesity Action Coalition had some connection to the 40 year+ social movement called fat activism, but a peep at their Helpful Links page reveals that this set-up is a front for the weight loss industry.

Glancing down the Board of Directors' list, who are named without any references to their entirely likely links to weight loss businesses, I see one Rebecca Puhl. Puhl is Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Earlier this year Puhl gave an interview to a Canadian newspaper in which she appeared to take credit for my headless fatty concept, although she renamed them 'the headless stomach' – no need to use that horrible F-word, 'stomach' is much nicer and more polite, and of course it's always always about the belly!

I think there are several problems here.

1. Discrimination, stigma and bias cannot be the only basis upon which critical perspectives on fat are based. Whilst these topics are fundamental in many ways, focusing on them to the exclusion of other aspects of fat embodiment, fat culture for example, or fat people's agency and resistance, does not do enough to trouble the idea that being fat is always awful and that the remedy should be weight loss.

2. In the early 1970s The Fat Underground identified fat oppression as a product of the medical-industrial-complex, and allied fat oppression with other systems of oppression in the world, they showed that ending oppression entails ending systems of oppression. Bias Busters makes it look as though fat hatred has nothing at all to do with the weight loss industries that pay for the Obesity Action Coalition, and many similar obesity lobbying groups. These people and organisations are the problem they are claiming to eradicate.

3. Bias Busters, 'the headless stomach', and The Rudd Centre put me in mind of the old Big Fat Blog post Weight Watchers Co-Opts Our Language. I'm also thinking about a number of (normatively-embodied, yeah, this is a generalisation, but still, interesting) scholars I'm coming across who won't use Fat Studies to describe their work, they believe the F-word is alienating, yet they benefit greatly from Fat Studies networks. Appropriation is starting to be a big problem. Some people might be flattered by this, at long last They are taking notice of Us. But this is not so because They are the equivalent of the Borg; We threaten them with annihilation, so They want to disarm us before We blow them up, to use a handful of militaristic metaphors, this is the War on Obesity after all. People and organisations who appropriate and diminish radical fat ideas are the ones who have a lot to lose if those ideas are allowed to bloom. The arrogant appropriation of ideas exposes their flimsy grip on the power they will do anything to retain. This propagandist appropriation of fat activist and fat studies concepts by people who have no intention of dismantling fat oppression, and who profit from it, makes me wonder if the war on obesity is becoming a cold war.

17 October 2011

Moving from duty to pleasure in fat activism

I'm slow to respond to the Department of Heath's latest report on obesity, Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A call to action on obesity in England. It's difficult to distinguish this report from any of the other obesity policy documents produced by the British government since it got caught in the grip of fat panic, since its prime objective continues to be the elimination of stupid, burdensome, poor fat people.

Newspaper reports have focussed on the report's pathetic proposal that people eat fewer calories, but what interests me more is how this work is to be funded. The ConDem government wants to spend as little as possible on obesity, which sounds good initially because it means that the tax I pay can go towards more pressing things, like rescuing banks and funding weapons and wars. If they had any sense they would ditch projects like Change4Life, the anti-obesity initiative that will not die, but they realise that the country needs scapegoats and it makes them look good if they can be seen to be doing something about The Problem of Us. What worries me about the resurrection of Change4Life is that placing it in corporate hands makes it much less accountable and instead of seeing less of this type of nonsense, its profitability will likely make it more ubiquitous. Curse them!

Obesity policy is not the thing that inspires me to do fat activism. I understand that engaging with it is important, it's the type of thing that makes some people come alive and motivates them to do extraordinary things (Lynn McAfee and Sondra Solovay are two fat activists whose work springs to mind) but I do it reluctantly, it is a chore.

Over the past couple of years, as I've been researching fat activism in more depth, I've become more able to articulate what it is in particular that does excite me. In general terms it's work that is anti-assimilationist, queer, experimental, creative, imaginative, 'irrational.' I live for fat activism that embraces risk, wildness, playfulness, prankishness, and which does not require people to be on their best behaviour, though egalitarian doing-no-harm ethics count. The fat activism that touches me is the work that emphasises hope, agency, sparkiness. Banner-waving, petition-signing, rational debate and collective action are valuable kinds of activism, but I also like things that push the limits of what activism can be.

Here's an example. I went to the fantastic Sex Worker Open University (SWOU) this week. This is a grassroots project by and for sex workers and allies that engages with the complexities of sex work and its many related issues. The SWOU offered workshops, presentations, discussions and hang-outs. On Saturday night the organisers produced an absolutely fantastic programme of films and performance. It's hard to put into words what made it so good, I'm still working it out but it had a lot to do with people presenting ideas and experiences that are generally unallowed or unvoiced; glimpses of people, their unashamed embodiment and sexuality; a lot of strength and defiance presented with amazing smartness and good humour, friendliness, warmth. Such a tonic. The night ended with a performance that involved a sequence of spectacular arse-shaking and lots of wobbling flesh. My eyes are still on stalks. The performer had such confidence and moves, the whole thing was beautiful, nuanced, intelligent and deeply bawdy. It made my heart pound, I couldn't believe what I was seeing, it was a one of those visual treats that makes you feel so glad to be alive. I went to bed thinking about bodies, flesh, pleasure, sexuality, freedom, abstractions that somehow fill me with hope, which is an important function of activism. I found out later that the performer had fat politics of her own, and it showed in what she did. When I think about the fat activism that moves me, this is along the lines of what I'm thinking about. Healthy Lives, Healthy People can suck it.

Anti-obesity campaigns: fatphobia in the radical left

My Facebook news feed is the place where I generally encounter fatphobic memes. A couple have cropped up recently that make me want to say more about how the Left uses fatphobia in its visual rhetoric, which is an extension of how the Left has continued to fail fat by stereotyping fat and class.

I'm posting the images here in order to take them apart and expose the hatred within the supposedly progressive message. People may find them upsetting, they are upsetting, I'm sorry.

A couple of years ago I wrote to the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) to tell them to stop using anti-obesity rhetoric as a rationale for their work. I live in London, like to cycle, and want to ride my bike safely. Being fat on a bike can make you a target for street hate. I wanted support for my cycling, but the LCC was not up to it and could only understand me as an offensive and abstract stereotype. I wrote How to Ride a Bike: A Guide for Fat Cyclists for their magazine, but it made no difference, anti-obesity continues to be a fundament of their mission statement.

So this image has been popping up on my news feed:


Not everyone is going to be able to ride a bike, there's a certain assumed embodied privilege about the idea that everyone should and can ride a bike. People's bodies are different. Frail people are not going to ride a bike, many disabled people are not going to ride a bike. Adaptations for disabled people who do want to ride are rare and expensive. Some people just don't like cycling. Cycling to town when you live in a city like London is not necessarily feasible. It's fine if you're rich enough to live in the middle of things, but riding to central London for me would mean a thirteen-mile round trip that takes in a dual carriageway and a handful of treacherous junctions, and I'm only in Zone Three. The cycle lanes that exist are not safe. I know two people who been run over whilst riding, and London's streets have far too many ghost bike memorials, I'm not interested in risking my own life. These differences cannot be accommodated in this image. In addition, the logic of the picture represents fat as a substance whose only use is to be burned, there is no humanity in fat.

This is a long way of saying that bike culture located within social and environmental discourse, and typically seen as representing a progressive, Left-ist politics, has a big problem with fat people. Those cyclists really hate us, even when we too are on two wheels.

Here's the second picture, eurgh, where to start?


Maybe with the racism? The people in these images are stripped of agency and humanity, they are abstract symbols that enable viewers to feel as though they can claim moral high ground through their pity and disgust for the people in the picture. Both images invite the enlightened progressive viewer to rescue the subhumans depicted, they need you!

The images have no context, they are offered as plain fact, it is beyond obvious that the starving African (a racist cliché in itself) and the greedy and out-of-control Asian* kids are both victims of a capitalism that favours some and not others, that a fair post-capitalist world would distribute resources evenly, where presumably everyone would have bodies that are neat, normatively-sized, the same. The meme presents itself as inarguable. Fat is greed, an obesity timebomb, a product of Western corruption, McDonalds, energy balance gone wrong, a racist terror of a voracious fat future dominating the world (ie the West, never mind that the West has its own history of colonial exploitation). Fat and thin are opposites. Forget that fat people might also be anti-capitalist. The slogan pulls it all together. You don't need to know anything else. Facebook tells me that this image has been liked by 10,000 people, shared by 7,000, and has enjoyed 4,000 comments (the 100 or so I looked at were uniformly praiseworthy). People on the internet really like cheap stereotypes, they help you feel good, as though you are doing something helpful for the betterment of humanity.

Here's what's not in the picture: Information about setserock and their motivation to create the meme, if indeed they created it, they may just have slapped their name on the corner at a later stage. Information about the people in the pictures, their accounts of being photographed, their thoughts about how their images have been used. Accounts by the photographers about how, when and why they took the photographs, how they were distributed, who got paid. A disclaimer about stereotyping. A comment on the implications of the presumed ethnicity of the people depicted? Thoughts about why the head of the person has been cropped out of the image (look familiar?). Engagement with the idea that fat is not pathology. And so on...

The picture comes undone when you stop seeing it as self-evident. Whilst setserock is enjoying hit after hit on their website as a result of this meme, I doubt the people in the images are enjoying any kind of material reward. How does that affect the statement? Who is benefiting from this image? Where is the power? How evenly is it spread? How exploitative is the image? How is this image a product of capitalism? How is setserock, and others who share it, implicated? Capitalism isn't working? No, it isn't, especially not here.

* Edited to add: I have read these kids as Asian though I am probably wrong. I don't know what their ethnicity is. I first came upon this image in a fat panic news story about kids in Asia, hence my reading, but it's likely that the people in the picture have nothing to do with Asia and were just picked from a photo agency's database to illustrate the story. 

11 October 2011

Disrupting fat narratives through Synchronised Swimming

A temporary change of pace...

I was into synchronised swimming when I was 11 or 12 or so. I really loved to swim anyway and used to spend hours at Hereford Baths with anyone who would go with me, and also by myself. I don't know how I met my friend Mary Anne but she was already part of the synchro group there and she encouraged me to come too.

The group was pretty small and we'd meet once a week or so in the diving pool at the Baths to practise figures and try and earn proficiency badges. The more skilled swimmers would practise their routines. Sometimes we'd all practise group routines, which we'd map out first on land in the Club Room, walking it through, using our arms to approximate leg movements. I remember a very dynamic sequence choreographed to the theme song from Hawaii-5-0, its exoticism was preposterous in the prosaic nature of our surroundings. We were encouraged to take part in competitions, I remember travelling to ancient swimming halls in cities near by, never really doing very well.

One year, possibly 1980 or 1981, the swimming pool decided to stage a water pantomime, Cinderella in fact. For those who don't know, a pantomime is a theatrical show produced in the Xmas holidays, typically featuring a set of conventions that can be traced back to Restoration theatre and Commedia dell'Arte. The Hereford Baths' water pantomime was just someone's weird idea. There was no scenery, the costumes were minimal, as was the plot, but there was a Dame, a Principle Boy and Girl, a bit of singing, some slapstick, and lots of swimming routines featuring the synchro club. I was in the chorus.

I'm right in the middle of the second row from the front

I'm remembering all this today because I've been thinking about how my identity as a fat person has developed over the years. By the time I was 11 or 12 years old my weight was already problematised in my family; I had been dieted sporadically from around seven or eight, called names, and had attention drawn to the size of my tummy. By the time I went through puberty my identity as a fat girl had solidified. My body was surveilled for fat during Physical Education sessions at school, I was being marked out as different by my schoolmates too, who also called me fat names. I was different, by this time I'd had many experiences that would make me different to my peers, but these invisible differences were less meaningful to others, instead my difference was coded through my chubby young body.

I could develop any number of these threads at this point, but I'll leave my puberty, family, school and classmates behind and come back to the swimming which is interesting to me not just because of its extreme kitsch, but also because it both supported and disrupted a gendered fat spoiled identity.

All the synchronised swimmers were girls, the oldest and best swimmers were about 16 years old. They were really powerful swimmers, very strong and athletic, and yet all I can remember about them are narratives about their perceived femininity. There was a lot of talk about make-up, tits, swimsuits, and their bodies were always there being watched and admired. They were the ones the younger swimmers aspired to, including me. I'm really struck by the whiteness of the people in the photograph above, and I'm reminded of how people in that world were generally lower class, and how synchro may have been an attempt to generate respectable feminine identities. Despite this, the leads in the water pantomime were played by two friends who interpreted Cinderella and the Prince through romanticised butch-femme synchro duets (jeez, no wonder I turned queer). I suppose what I'm getting at is that I can't dismiss this early experience of girl sport as entirely about feminine governmentality.

Synchro reinforced the problematic nature of my body. At the synchro club as well as elsewhere it was noted that I was too big, I didn't win medals, I was mediocre, I was not elegant. I compared myself to other swimmers and found myself lacking and I was frustrated by the many moves that I did not have the strength or flexibility to perform. At the same time I felt very free in the water. I loved swimming in the deep, chilly diving pool, all that deep blue liquid space around me, performing moves called Dolphin, Marlin, Swordfish, Tub, sculling this way and that. I still feel the lack and frustration of my body, but many of the physical skills I learned in the club have stayed with me, and to this day some of my greatest embodied pleasures involve swimming and water.

Perhaps most of all, these memories of doing synchro and becoming fat help me disrupt the narrative I've internalised of the fat and lazy kid. I was a very active kid, and I was still fat. The things They say I'm supposed to believe about myself just aren't true. This makes me want to disrupt and complicate those restrictive narratives even more, including the counter-narratives of perfect healthist fat poster children.

One last thing, it just occurred to me that these early experiences made it possible for things that came later, they helped me build a sense of my body's capabilities that developed into self-expression, survival, activism, sexuality, and which inform my politics and worldview somewhat profoundly. I can see a link between synchro and punk, synchro and feminism! It's so funny that the latter can feed off the former. It helps me understand how important those early embodied experiences are in terms of building confidence and agency. I'm pretty certain that Hereford's synchro team was not explicitly an incubator for the future fat activists of the UK, which is why I also doubt that those things can be taught. There's a danger of hammering it out of young people, it can't be taught by rote, that spark can't be institutionalised, they have to find embodied freedom and agency in their own way, and even then it won't be straightforward.