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.

11 June 2013

Being painted by Ruth Angel Edwards

Ruth Angel Edwards 2013
Ruth Angel Edwards has produced an extraordinary painting that features an image of me, my girlfriend and some friends and acquaintances from London's queer community. The painting shows a group of people (feminists, women, queers) constructing a space out of wood amidst a forest against some mountains.

I came to be in the painting in a very informal way. Last summer, my friend Ele Cockerill (the one with the bucket) sent me a text to say that Ruth was looking for subjects on which to base a painting. I'd seen Ruth playing in a band called Covergirl and another called Yola Fatoush, and she is part of a scene of young artists, queers and musicians that has supported my own band. I didn't know she was a painter. We arranged to meet up with some other people I know a bit, and she explained what she was looking for. This would be a large-scale painting that referenced women's communities, back-to-the-land lesbian separatism, the physicality of building something yourself. She took some photographs of a group of us looking as though we were working and making something. That was that.

Michigan Dykes by Lynn Levy, 1982
Andrews-Hunt, C. (1983) Images of Our Flesh, Seattle: The Fat Avengers.
When I thought about the painting, I imagined a big landscape with small figures within it, perhaps looking like busy elves beavering away on a structure. I imagined myself as a stick figure far in the background and very inconsequential. I was amazed to see how the painting actually turned out. Far from being a marginal figure, my representation is central to the work. I feel simultaneously thrilled and shy about this, it's both unsettling and exciting to see myself in this way. It brings to mind the archival research I did whilst working towards my doctorate and my interest in the emergence of fat activism through lesbian feminist communities of the 1970s and 80s. I came across many photographic images of community where fat dykes were central and here I am, also central to this picture.

detail by Ruth Angel Edwards
Ruth has painted me as I looked on the day, in my Piggly Wiggly t-shirt and Birkenstocks, with my hair scraped back. You can see one of my tattoos, the grey along my hairline, my rosacea. You can also see a strong gaze, confidence, a powerful attitude. It's really flattering! As my friend Rachel Berger says: "She really captured you". It feels fantastic to see myself in this painting, as someone who is also constituted by a community of action and imagination, and that elements of my real community are here with me in the image, not least my fat girlfriend too. I love that this is a painting of (presumably feminist) collective action. It's not the structure that is central to the image, it's the people. I'm not a painter, but a piece of this scale and scope is, to me, about work and dedication, as is the image itself. It pleases me no end to see 'work' so much a part of the piece; things don't just happen, there is always work behind it all, often women's work, no matter how hidden.

This painting references a feminist past, and a present compellingly. I am probably the oldest one in the picture, maybe the only one to have had first hand experience of second wave feminist land-based organising in the 1980s. Many of my politics and values were established in that period, but I am also critical of it; it was often a terrible time in feminism for queers like me, for trans people, for people of colour. The painting represents a lesbian feminist utopia in some ways, but I feel that my critical presence undermines that somewhat. My boyfriend is out of the frame, for example, but was there when the reference photographs were taken, and is also part of this social group. I hope the inclusion of me enables younger feminists to resist adopting the more problematic aspects of vintage fundamentalist feminism unchecked, and to develop more progressive politics.

Pinky by Sadie Lee
Ruth's painting has made me think about other queer representations of fat in modern painting (which, sadly, excludes Allyson Mitchell, queer fat artist par excellence). By queer I mean that either painter or sitter, or both, are queer, or where there is a queer sensibility infusing the work. Lucien Freud's celebrated paintings of Leigh Bowery and Big Sue spring to mind, but so too does Sadie Lee's paintings Pinky and Amy's Room. What's interesting to me is that the people painting them with love and attention are not fat. The same goes for Ruth. When you're fat it's often hard to imagine your physical presence being anything but abhorrent to someone else, especially thin people, and lord knows we encounter social messages like this every day. But these artists value fat people and our bodies, not as cute or pretty, or as the potential to be normal and nice, or in a traditionally socially sanctioned way, and far beyond a rhetoric of healthy/unhealthy, but as we are and as they see us. It is fabulous.

04 June 2013

Fat hatred in academia

Fat hate stories generally blow up and die down pretty quickly and it's business as usual again. But the case of Dr Geoffrey Miller has just taken some odd new twists.

Miller is a visiting psychology professor at New York University, and also employed by the University of New Mexico. This week he tweeted:


NYU responded to say that they would not give him the sack although an investigation is underway into his actions by his department at UNM.

What's particularly weird is that Miller is apparently now saying that his egregious Tweet is part of an experiment to see how people react to inflammatory statements on social media. Er, yeah. I'd like to see evidence that he had ethics clearance for that. It also doesn't explain why he's beaten a retreat and locked his account. As one person said on the Fat Studies Facebook group: wouldn't he have had a better plan than that? It all sounds a little fishy at this stage.

Oddly enough, this is the second time within a few weeks that a thin white academic guy has said something fatphobic and claimed it as 'truth'. Glad to know these eejits are on the case for the rest of us, letting us know what's real and what's false!

Meanwhile, Cat Pausé of Massey University in Aotearoa/New Zealand has established a Tumblr to demonstrate that there are plenty of fat people who not only have the willpower to complete a dissertation/thesis but who have survived the academic hazing process known as getting a higher degree.

At the moment I feel very ambivalent about my relationship to the academy. I am glad of my fairly recent PhD but need some time to reflect on what it means to me, what it upholds, and how I might use it for good.

Nevertheless, it is pretty amazing to see the names and faces as I scroll through Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs. Many of us are friends and collaborators and the site represents a new community of power. I was speaking just recently about how old school obesity researchers need to get on board with us, not just for ethical reasons, but also because it won't be long until we are the ones swiping funding bids and accolades from under their noses.

Formal education is a key strategy for social mobility. In the UK, people who cannot afford the recently hiked fees, or the debt associated with them, are now locked out. The general whiteness of Pausé's group suggests that the academy still has a long way to go in enabling people of colour to rise to the top (and raises questions about how this cohort uses its privilege to support others). Although I was relatively privileged in doing my own PhD, my social identities meant that I had to be x times better than others to do half as well. I'm sure my story is familiar to the other Fuck Yeah! Fat PhDs. Far from being an interesting experiment, Miller's bigoted Tweet exposes how hate places people further into marginal positions, and denies them/us full social participation.