26 July 2012

Being called disgusting, ugly, and unhealthy did not destroy me

A person made a mean and thoughtless comment about one of Substantia's Adipositivity portraits of me recently, I saw it just now. This is not front page news, I get trolled fairly often and I don't expect everybody to like what I do. Neither do I need reassurance that I'm nice, good, pretty enough as I am; whether or not I embody those things is irrelevant to me, I'm as complex as anybody else and I trust my sense of ethics.

I'm intrigued by the comment, if anything. I think this is because I am writing this morning about my affective response to obesity discourse. I often write about obesity discourse and the fat hatred it engenders in abstract ways, but here it is, like dirty smoke manifesting from the ether, finding a vessel in this person. The comment represents the entitlement of the discourse, its arrogance towards and alienation from the subjects – fat people – with whom it is apparently concerned.

Other people might feel devastated by such a comment, but I don't. This is not because I'm not a thinking, feeling person myself, I often feel hurt by things. It's because its separation from anything that is meaningful to me about being a fat dyke, or a person in one of Substantia's pictures, means that it will make no difference to how I live my life. The comment feels as mystifying and alien as if an ant had tried to explain something to me in ant-language.

I decided to look at the comment more closely and pick it apart a little, there's so much going on in that short statement measuring the value of my presence in the world. It goes like this: "I'm sorry, but this will never be beautiful. It's disgusting, it's ugly, it's unhealthy."

It starts as an apology but is not an apology. Why say sorry? What apology are they making? Are they trying to gently divest people from their fantasy that the photograph of me is something that might help them feel as though they can live in the world?

They use the dehumanising words "this" and "it" when talking about me. Or is this about me? Perhaps it's about the picture, the outfit, the street or, more likely, the fat on my body as an entity that is separate to me.

They use the term "never". How can they know? Many people have expressed deep affection for this picture. As it was being taken, a guy on the street asked for my number (that's him in the foreground blur). On what authority can they make that claim of "never"? It's nonsense.

It's kind of amazing to be called disgusting! I wonder if the person feels like vomiting when they see me, if that feeling of disgustingness is about trying to eject me from their own being because I upset how they want things to be so intensely. I secretly hope so because, apart from someone shitting or dying at the sight of you, this is the ultimate punken reaction. I am glad to be so disruptive and uncomfortable a presence.

But being called disgusting and ugly doesn't make sense in the context of their Tumblr. There are lots of pictures of punks, how come they don't recognise how punk I am? There are images of fat people too, cartoons mostly, how come they're ok but I am not? Scrolling through, I can see images of someone gleefully pointing a gun at the viewer; a wave of blood; a chainsaw killer; a hanged yuppie with a plastic bag over his head; Charles Manson; a woman with a pretty punched mouth and another woman with a pretty black eye; a stitched wound; a potato shitting chips! I am uglier and more disgusting than those things in this person's universe, I think I'm supposed to mind, women are supposed to care about being called ugly, but I don't.

The commenter does not know me and does not appear to have any qualifications that would enable them to assess the state of my health, yet they feel entitled to judge me. Typically, this form of judgment brings with it none of the compassion that one might extend to someone who was unwell, not that I want to be concern-trolled.

I don't know how to end this. I think I'm astonished by some people's capacity for thoughtless meanness, perhaps I don't come across much of that in my everyday life. The experience has made me reflect on how profoundly the internet affects how I live, the things I can do and witness, a life without it is unimaginable. It's made me think about accountability online, how off-the-cuff comments are not necessarily throwaway. Mostly I feel strong, politically and intellectually engaged with what it is to be fat; I feel alright. It's a miracle, really - actually it's not a miracle, you're looking at what happens after 20+ years of work.

PS. I sent this: Hi there, I wrote a blog post inspired by your comment about my picture. Perhaps you'd like to respond? It would be good to generate some dialogue. Tumblr won't let me send a link but you can get to the piece by Googling 'Obesity Timebomb'. Charlotte

23 July 2012

Bari-Suits dehumanise fat people

When I first started encountering fat activism in the US in the early 90s, accessible medical equipment was a big issue. People couldn't get hospital gowns or blood pressure cuffs that fitted. When you're unwell or disabled and needing assistance, being treated with dignity is an important part of how people should care for you. When you're fat, you can't count on this kind of care because medical fatphobia is so endemic.

The emergence and popularity of surgical weight loss technologies, and casualties from other forms of weight loss, also added to a population of fat people who needed accessible medical care around the time that activists were demanding accessible equipment. Medical supply companies soon realised that they were looking at a profitable niche market. Benmor Medical is one such company, it was established in 1996 and now sells a line of products such as larger-sized wheelchairs, wide walking-frames, big bedpans, and gadgets that help move you around safely and gently if you are fat and otherwise immobile, and which guard the safety of the people moving you too.

What makes me queasy about Benmor Medical is that its products are not the result of critical community consultation with fat people encountering medical systems. Instead it sells products that reflect the interests of medical discourse, and within this model fat people can only exist as 'patients', that is, bottom-dwellers in the hegemony of health professionals. So as well as marketing mobility aids, it also sells a range of scales because weighing fat people is extremely important in this particular framework. This kind of marketing reproduces fat people as little more than medicalised meat. Added to this, I noticed on their news page that they were proud to have had their products placed in an exploitative TV obeso-shockumentary. Benmor Medical's language is of care and concern, but fat people have an ambiguous and unsettling place in the company's values, our voices and images are strangely absent, far less important than the tantalising equipment.

I found out about Benmor Medical because a few weeks ago my friend Liz alerted me to one of their products, the Bari-Suit. This is a "Training & Education" product that was awarded Most Interesting New Product at the Moving and Handling Conference 2012. Interesting it is.

It's a fat suit.

Marisa Meltzer's piece from 2006 framing fat suits as blackface still rings strongly, but I have written before that on some rare occasions fat suits can be eye-opening. Unfortunately the Bari-Suit has none of the nuance of a performance at Burger Queen, it is simply dehumanising and offensive, and presumably extremely expensive and profitable. There's no price on the website, you have to endure the Benmor Medical sales patter if you want to see how much it costs to rent or buy and when something is missing a price tag it usually means that it costs a fortune. It comes 'naked,' or dressed in Benmor Medical-branded sweats. It is so plainly ludicrous and vile that I wish I were making it up.

Medical teams could be employing actual fat people as part of their training into care for fat people in medical situations. This would entail having to talk to fat people with respect and care, finding out about fat people's lives, having to listen and create care paths that reflect direct accounts of what fat people need and want. This could be a great way of sharing knowledge between service providers and service users. The fat person gets paid for their expertise too!

Instead, they spend a lot of money on Benmor Medical's stupid, ugly fat suit. They get a normatively-sized person to try it on, they heave them about, they learn nothing at all about fat embodiment or identity in healthcare. In addition, using a fat suit in place of an actual person reinforces normatively-sized people's fantasies and stereotypes about what it is to be fat. This is particularly powerful because they do this as a group and the beliefs remain unquestioned because either there are no fat people in the room to counter them, or the fat people in the room are silenced by this ridiculous charade. This is what Benmor Medical regard as a good result, it's from the promotional download for their Bari-Suit from the company's website:

"Maryke Gosliga, Manual Handling Co-ordinator at Kettering General Hospital [...] commented: 'Having rented the suit for a bariatric study day this January, I have to say that it was a decision I am glad to have made. Seeing one of their colleagues wearing the suit made others really think about the issues, especially as it made the person wearing it less independent, because of the mechanics involved. Getting the trousers on was difficult, as was moving about. Those who did wear the suit learnt a lot that day! Altogether it was a good experience for all of us on our study day.'"

I can barely bring myself to comment on this patronising rubbish and I am struggling not to be sarcastic about how this team really thought about the issues, the mechanics, and the difficulty of getting those horrible trousers on and off. Good work, Kettering General!

The Bari-Suit truly exemplifies the profound inability of medical professionals to see fat people as human or real in a context where this must surely be the baseline from which care is given. Instead, a nasty little outfit is seen as an adequate substitution for years of experience, complex relationships to embodiment, engagement with social exclusion, or the possibilities that fat people have community and culture and agency of far more depth than medical discourse can currently encompass. Benmor Medical are not the originators of this state of affairs, the rot is much more pervasive, it's a part of the culture from which they profit.

I want to add a brief coda. At the end of June I had the great good fortune to attend the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. This is a really fantastic event combining grassroots activism with DIY media technology, defined in the broadest of ways. Many different types of people attend. Look at the session lists and comments and archived videoed sessions to get a feel for the conference, save up and attend next year if you can, I can't recommend it highly enough and would love to return.

The conference has been going for some years and each year there are particular session threads devoted to certain areas of interest. This year Research Justice was one such theme. This refers to the practice of developing accountable, participatory and liberatory research methodologies, especially when directed towards marginalised people. These values should be at the heart of all research, of course, but this is not always the case, especially in terms of obesity research, where fat people are routinely made abject and absent.

At one of the Research Justice sessions, speakers talked about establishing and using community ethics boards as a means of making sure that research on those communities is accountable and inclusive. I thought this was an excellent and powerful idea. Imagine if every piece of obesity research had to pass a fat community ethics board in order to get funded or published, or to have any credibility in research communities. Imagine how that could help transform the current dismal situation for critical research into fat, and how that could alter the landscape for our encounters with medical science. It would mean no more Bari-Suits for sure.

Incidentally, I am intrigued by the popularisation of the term 'bariatric' and its diminutives. Are there any etymologists in the house who can illuminate its source and growth? It's one of those professional-expert-medic words that sounds so neutral but masks a world of problematic assumptions.

Meltzer, M. (2006) 'Are Fat Suits the New Blackface? Hollywood’s Big New Minstrel Show' in Jervis, L. and Zeisler, A., eds., Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 267-269.

11 July 2012

I got fat-papped* for the tabloids

Mike Lawn's picture of us
I co-produced an event at the weekend called The Fattylympics. I've given an account of what this work entailed elsewhere.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to keep them out, the event took place in an open space and was gate-crashed by some journalists who refused to respect our clearly-stated request that they stay away. This is ordinary behaviour in the UK, where unethical practise is endemic within the profession. One of the journalists was a photographer called Mike Lawn (possibly a pseudonym, the URL has the name Graham and files attributed to that name), who provides work for the Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid. Lawn sneaked around all day, failing to disclose that he was a professional photographer, he took pictures of people without their consent and sold them for publication to a newspaper that probably everyone featured in it hates. I was one of the people, someone else was featured and mis-named as me (maybe because inter-departmental communication at the Mail is terrible, maybe because all fatties look the same to the normals, or could it even have been a strategy for covering their arses legally if they didn't actually name us correctly in the photographs?!).

I'm interested in the idea of fat people as objects of fascination. We are objects of fascination in medicine, and in research. I hadn't been able to articulate it until now but we are also photographic objects of fascination. Headless fatties make this clear. And being an object of fascination brings with it forms of symbolic violence; we are dehumanised and belittled in that gaze. Perhaps the quality of the fascination in each field varies, but it's a fascination nevertheless, people really want to look at us, especially when they are sure that we won't stare back or look at them. No one looked back at Mike Lawn, he's as forgettable as they come, but he was looking at all of us keenly on Saturday.

It is ludicrous to think of myself as a pappable object, an object of fascination. At the moment I spend most days at home, working on my thesis. I lead a fairly quiet life, with moments of exuberance like the Fattylympics dotted around it. I live on a small amount of money, I don't pursue fame or draw attention to myself through my appearance, although I am opinionated and like to share my thoughts where I can. I am mostly very obscure and unknown. It's unbelievable that my picture would help to sell newspapers, especially all red-faced at the end of a sweaty day, with my hair all dishevelled, and topped with a preposterous Fattylympics towelling headband. I was wearing Birkenstocks too.

I remember the moment it happened. Kay and I went to fetch the Fattylympics medals from the back of the car. This was the first time we had been alone together since the event started, and it was the last push before it was time to end. We were chatting intimately as we walked with the pole full of medals towards the venue. A guy hopped out from nowhere and took pictures of us without asking. I remember his weird, hunched over stance which I now understand was the stance of a photographer. He didn't have a showy camera. I foolishly assumed that because we were having a private moment we were immune to any intrusion. I thought it was weird he'd want to take our picture in that moment and asked him to send us his pictures. "I will," he said. Reader, he didn't. The reason he didn't is that the pictures he took are worth money to him and won't be thrown away on Facebook, or given to anyone. Maybe he'll sell them, and others he took, elsewhere.

Going through the photographs that other people shared, I see Mike Lawn more clearly. It's chilling to see him appear in other people's pictures, seeing him getting in there, taking pictures of trusting, unsuspecting people. This may be legal but it is abusive. Mike, you are probably reading this, what do you say? How much money did you earn from taking our pictures? How are you going to make this better?

I have regrets about how this played out on Saturday. We could not stop the media from gate-crashing, we confronted some people and did the best we could to keep an eye open for intrusive and unwanted behaviour, but these people are sneaky liars and they did their job under those terms. On the other hand, we could have been clearer about warning people that photographers and journalists may have been present. Because of these experiences I will probably never again produce a fat activist event in an open space. Thanks Mike.

Until fat people stop being dehumanised objects of fascination, we will continue to be money-makers for exploitative journalists and photographers. This means that fat activists, especially those in the UK, or any place where the media is feral, might think about building media strategies that protect participants, especially during public actions. This is a big job. It entails building media literacy, building enough self-esteem in people to be able to say no to all forms of exploitative journalism, to develop practical strategies for keeping people safe from media intrusion.

There are small consolations from the experience. A picture of two fat dykes carrying a pole of home-made medals appeared in a high-circulation newspaper. Hello, we exist. And Kay was wearing a t-shirt that I got her at the Allied Media Conference, for a fantastic project called All of Us or None, which fights discrimination against prisoners and supports prisoner rights. I am glad the image of a golden fist and the slogan All of Us or None got reproduced far and wide. It would have been better had we given our consent, however.

*papped = to have your picture taken by a paparazzo. Fat-papped = to have your picture taken and sold without your consent because you are fat.

09 July 2012

Report: Fattylympics

Pic by Matthew Cunningham
I have uploaded a long post on the Fattylympics blog that explains what we did. It's rich and complicated! Essential reading for fat activists, but then I would say that. There will be pictures and video shortly.

Fattylympics: This is what we did